Caught between a monkey and a snake. Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
If you had asked me on January 1 2009 how I thought we would spend the following New Year I would probably have said that it would be some variation of the preceeding year – same people, same place, same promise at the start of the night and same vague disappointment at its close. I would have predicted that it would be harder to get a taxi maybe or that we would have slightly better jobs and slightly bigger budgets. What I would not have predicted is that we would start 2010 on a small island off the coast of Vietnam, singing, dancing, drinking and generally revelling with a bunch of Aussies who, having been introduced only the day beforehand, were quickly becoming our new best friends.
But that was how 2010 did start for us – first in a bar drinking rice wine; then perched on the steps of a pier watching oriental junks bobbing in the water; and finally, four of us squeezing into one bed for two hours kip before we set sail again in the morning.
Initially we had planned to hit Hanoi for the New Year but after spending two fruitless nights searching for any iota of nightlife, we decided to push forward our Ha Long Bay tour, shelling out a measley $80 for three day and two night tour what was once recognised as one of the natural wonders of the world. A flat expanse of emerald water punctured by almost 2,000 limestone karst mountains and islets, peppered with white sand beaches, floating civilisations and spectacular caves, the only surprise is that Ha Long Bay is no longer one of the Seven Wonders.
As great as New Year’s was though it was still only the cherry on the pie. Over the past two days we had cruised between soaring grey cliffs, navigated caves dripping with suggestive staligtites and kayaked into secluded coves. We had also been pretty lucky with shipmates, managing to bunk up with four fun-loving Aussies and two lovely British girls. After spending the day concocting elaborate stories to explain the presence of penguin-shaped bins in a Vietnamese cave, we spent our first evening in the bay stretched out on sun loungers on the top deck of our boat, downing just about everything the onboard bar stocked.
The next day, after a quick morning swim in the bay to cure our thumping hangovers, we headed for Cat Ba National Park where we rented some bicycles and made our way along the coast, through a village bursting with brightly coloured houses and into a jungle. En route we stopped for a rest and our enigmatic guide Tung (tour guide by day, heartbreaking dragon by night) introduced us to a local delicacy called Snake Whiskey – rice wine stored in a huge jar for a few years alongside several dead snakes, a dead bird and whatever else the maker happened to find on the side of the road. Delicious.
Next up was a trip to Monkey Island where a low tide meant we had to make our way between the boat and the island by swimming. Excited by the prospect of encountering primates in the wild, we ignores Tung’s advice that the monkeys were not to be trusted and made our way up the sharp karst mountain in our bare feet. After a few minutes of climbing over painfully jagged rocks we were just about to give up when we rounded a corner and came face to face with a big red-faced monkey who was perched on a rock near the top of the mountain, surveying his territory and protecting his women from western tourists and their probing cameras.
Unfortunately the monkey was not as happy to see us as we were to see him so he decided to escort us down the hill and, if needs be, swim us back to our boat himself. Hampered by bare feet and uncertainty, we started to stumble down the hill. Tantalisingly close to the bottom we met another adversary – a snake. Trapped between a serpant and a territorial monkey (who was now demanding randsoms of cameras and water bottles) we started to understand what Tung had been warning us about. Several bruised feet and a water bottle later we reached the beach again and headed for the safety of the water, only to be cut off by another dozen or so monkeys who fell from the sky, swinging through tree branches and lining up on the balcony of the island’s police headquarters.
After some sand throwing, sprinting, randsom negotiation and stick waving we did manage to make it to the boat though, where the captain (who was pretty drunk) let us take it in turns to steer our way to the touristy side of Cat Ba Island for our New Year’s celebrations.
All in all, not a bad deal for $80, don’t you think?
More pictures from Ha Long Bay are available in the gallery