My very first international travel flew me to this exotic country that was caught in the midst of war a few decades ago. In October 8, 2003 through my work, my company sent me to Hanoi, Vietnam for a whole month. Hanoi, is the capital of this socialist republic and is situated on the northern part of what used to be the communist North Vietnam. Famous spots in Hanoi includes the Hoan Kiem Lake which is in the center of the city. Within Hanoi is the old French Quarters which is basically a section of the city filled with French architecture that was left by the long French occupation, including the Hanoi Opera House. Also, here you can visit the frozen tomb of Vietnam’s national hero, Ho Chi Minh.
During my long stay in Vietnam, I, with 2 lady friends planned on going into this serene place and is one of UNESCO‘s world heritage sites. On the 2nd of November, we took an overnight cruise to Ha Long Bay. We got our cruise package from Handspan travel agency in Hanoi. Our package includes transportation from Hanoi’s busy commercial area to Ha Long Bay, guided tour to one of its caves, and our sumptuous meals. It costs US$50 each person in 2003.
We left Hanoi around 7am that day and it took us about 2 hours to get to Ha Long Bay. Along the way as we near the bay, karst mountains or limestone cliffs that stood up like skyscrapers can be seen from a distance. And seeing those makes me realize that it was going to be a great trip. On our bus are at least a dozen of tourists of different nationalities. It was my first to be with this group.
On our arrival at Ha Long Bay, we ride on Dragon Pearl, a traditional Chinese Junk ship. This is where we will be staying overnight. Our guide then grouped all of us and assigned us our rooms. Each room had 2 guests. And since I’m a lone man, our guide put me in a room with a Singaporean guy who is traveling alone.
For our group, which is about twelve, we had the 3 of us Filipinos, a Singaporean, a Swiss lady, 3 German women, an American couple teaching Japanese and an American guy (Mr. White). On the junk, is another group of twelve who was on the cruise for a 2 night stay.
Our first stop is one of the caves within hundreds of islets. But before getting there, our junk cruised slowly through tranquil waters among hundreds of karst islets. I and my friends, Ana and Mhe-ann, walked up on the top of the junk where the orange sails are. On that top deck are benches you’d usually see on beaches where you can lie and have sunbathing. Around us, the other tourist guests find their places to either sun themselves or read out a book. I decided that I just lie on the bench and feel the calmness of the place. It was one of the most beautiful places that I have ever been to. It was serene and peaceful. The sea is as calm as water in a basin and is so green and clean.
When we reached the cave site, we were led by our guide dozens of steps up to the cave’s mouth. The cave was big and had the trail that led to the insides of the cave. Inside it, the cave is lighted on every corner and that gave you an easy walk inside the cave. I did not appreciate it much because it was no longer as natural as it is, but still it is a beautiful cave. On our way back to the junk, we saw some merchants on oval boats that looked like made of weaved leaves. They sell different kinds of stuff from food to drinks.
After that day cave trip, around 4pm our junk docked itself in the midst of the sea among the islets. The crew invited the guests to have a swim to the sea. Since I and Anna knows how to swim, we decided to do so. At the back end of the junk, there was a deck where the guests can stand and dive down to the sea. Some of the guests waded nearby the junk, some floated on their life vests or holding on floaters tied to the junk. For some who knows how to swim, swam farther including us. Around 4:30pm, some of the guests near the junk felt that the underwater current seemed to be getting stronger and so some of them started to swim back. When I myself noticed it, I planned to return but saw that Ana was wading farther. I swam to her and told her to go back, but it was too late. The current has gone strong that we no longer move no matter how we swam. And then we heard Mr. White shouting that we are drowning. So, two crew members decided to get on a boat and paddled towards us passing to Mr. White first who was also caught by the tide. When the boat got near us, they threw us a rope and then paddled back to the junk. They paddled and paddled for about 10 minutes but we were not moving. Either because the 3 of us are too heavy or the tide was too strong. Fortunately, one of the American teachers dove with a rope and swam to the boat and swam back to the junk. So the other crew dragged the boat that was dragging us. It was a scary and funny experience. Scary because if help didn’t reach us, we might have returned to the Philippines by tide. Funny because two skinny Vietnamese crew members were not able to pull 3 heavy and stout tourist like us.
That dinner, we everyone was taking of us, of how they were worried that we almost drowned. On that dinner also, another funny event happened. Our meal was seafood and Ana asked the waiter for some lemon with salt to dip the calamari on. The waiter returned with a lemonade. Salted lemonade. That’s how communication barrier can go wrong. Hehehe… anyway their manager corrected it. Anyway, the dinner was great. The food was pouring.
The next day we went back to the port to go back to Hanoi. That short cruise in Ha Long is something that I consider to be among the best vacations that I got and one of the most memorable because of being dragged by the tide and being served with salted lemonade. Anyway, if I get the chance to get back to Hanoi, I’ll definitely visit Ha Long again and make sure I have a digital camera with me.
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