Along the North Eastern coast of Vietnam lays one of the most visited tourism spots in South East Asia, and a UNESCO world heritage site: Ha Long Bay. This area is filled with thousands of limestone karsts (island mountains) carved from 20 million years of wet climate and is a heritage site primarily for it’s geomorphical features. Do tourists care about that? Not really. It’s pretty and it’s got beaches.
To avoid the hoards of tourists, (both Vietnamese and International) that come to see and vacation in Ha Long Bay, we decided to try and go to the lesser known (but geologically the same) Lan Ha Bay, which is situated on Cat Ba Island. We thought we’d take a nice beach vacation to relax and recharge after being on the road for a month.
Of course, “relaxation” with Alayna is more like running in a hamster wheel chasing a bit of cheese. On the first day here, we booked a full day excursion on a boat to go and see these islands; it was complete with private beach swimming, fishing villages and cave kayaking.
Part of the reason for doing this on the first day was because the weather forecast was not in our favour, and it was the only day not forecasted to rain or thunderstorm. So we went, aannnnnddd it rained.
We were on a fairly large boat with a top observation deck along with about 30 other people, cruising our way through the islands. We went past floating fishing villages sheltered by the large islands. People live there year round, and they appear to be very simple homes with large netted fish containers surrounding them. Spotlights are shined into the ocean at night to attract schools of fish. A fishing net is then hoisted up from the ocean catching everything that’s been fooled by the light. These fish are generally small and are fed to the large fish that are farmed. It can take up to a year before a farmer’s fish are large enough to sell.
Most of the fish farms have dogs to scare away the ravens who come to try and steal a snack. We stopped at one and walked on the narrow planks between the fish enclosures, all the while thinking, “there is no way this can withstand 30 people’s weight – we’re all going to fall in”. Thankfully, the old wood held, despite the boat driver crashing into it while docking.
Tourism is fast becoming the main industry in this part of Vietnam. Ha Long bay has already forced out all of the people previously living in that bay and zoned it only for tourism. Lan Ha bay has yet to follow suit, but it’s hard to say how much longer these people are going to be able to stay in their homes. As tourists ourselves we are aware of the impact that we can have on native people’s lives in the areas we’re visiting. On the other hand, tourism injects so much money into local communities and countries that it’s a huge positive. It’s a fine balancing act that Vietnam will have to struggle with as tourism continues to build.
We went to a private beach, jumped off the boat and swam inland. It was a little chilly for swimming but when else are you going to swim at a private beach in Ha Long bay? In we went and it wasn’t too bad! That is until we got stung by a jelly fish. Mark got a little wee bit on his foot, but Alayna got it full blown on her arm. The guide rubbed some kumquat juice on it to minimize the stinging “Don’t worry, not dangerous one” and Alayna’s arm flared up with a pretty decent reaction. The main stinging subsided in about an hour and by night time it was just minimal. By the next day the sting was gone completely.
The islands themselves were pretty, mainly because there are so many of them. Were we blown away? Not really. Maybe we’ve been spoiled from the beauty of the mountains on our Ha Giang trip. We thought that Tobermory or Lionshead back home have superior beauty. Or maybe we’re just getting homesick…
After a few dreary days, the rain subsided. Seizing the moment, we scooted around the island on a rented motorbike. We checked out some caves, which were impressive, and then hired a private water taxi to take us to Monkey Island. Pulling in to Monkey Island looks like a beach invasion from a war film: junks half beached and bouncing while pudgy tourists tumble off in confusion into a foot of seawater. Smashing your head off of the swaying boat is the least of your worries as a troop of monkeys eagerly await your arrival. They’re hopped up on Coca Cola that they’ve stolen from tourists and the day is young. Herds of fresh tourists with loads of stuff (cameras, hats, purses, food, etc) get dumped on the island and nothing could make a monkey more gleeful. They steal, bite, defecate, surprise attack, and then steal some more. They’re extremely agile and intelligent and very greedy; it makes for a nice combination.
If the hospitality of your island hosts doesn’t turn you off, then there is a rock climb/hike that surely will. A small opening in the forest leads to a treacherous trail. The rocks are indented with a pattern that leaves great hand grips. It’s really more of a rock climb than a hike. Gripping on for dear life, you do begin feeling like the monkey on this island. Sandals and flip flops can be seen at the bottom of the crevices that line the route. Meanwhile, as you glance far down to the beach, you can see the monkey troops ravaging the fresh tourists as they get dumped from boats. The things we do for a good photo..
Next on the agenda was to be dropped off at a private beach. This region of Vietnam is littered with them. The beaches are beautiful and isolated because of the rocky landscape of the islands. So there we were, lounging on our own private beach and soaking up the last of the afternoon sun. After a nice swim in the ocean we headed back to our hotel and all worked out quite nicely.
We’re quickly approaching our last days in Vietnam. The game plan is to rest and recharge because a more hectic city lays on the horizon. It’s heat is punishing and food delicious. Any sin desired can be found on every street corner. It’s a chaotic city that will chew you up and sit you out if you’re not careful. Bangkok, we’re coming for you.