“I’m not a strong swimmer,” I responded, a little too loud from the deck of the boat, to a friend coaxing me to jump into the green waters of Lan Ha Bay. He was already in the water, having jumped from the roof deck of the boat. I was at the edge of the hull of our boat, looking down on the water. I looked at the island we were supposed to swim to. It looked close enough. Until I was in the water, that is. Then, it wasn’t close at all.

***

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Let’s backtrack to that Monday morning, with me not too eager about getting out of bed. I had set the alarm on my phone to six a.m. and it bellowed from my side beside the pillow. My friend, Ham, who was still sleeping was woken by it, too. I had not slept much the night before. It had been raining really hard and the winds that night howled relentlessly as it went through whatever open orifice that the building, we were staying in, had. It was unsettling, and it didn’t help my state of unrest. I’m not supposed to be jet-lagged. Vietnam only has an hour time difference with the Philippines, but I haven’t slept for anything longer than 3 hours since I arrived Saturday night. I think my body had been so used to working nights that it still thinks I have to work when I’m supposed to be relaxing and on vacation. My friend felt a little bad for me and offered that we skip going on the cruise, but I didn’t want to waste the day. Plus, we already promised the guy from one of the many tour offices that we’d be there. I’ve never been keen on breaking promises.

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On the boat we went. A junk, as it is called. Ten strangers out of the port in Cat Ba. The boat is small, split into three rooms. The rooms were separated by sliding doors, which at the moment are open, so it would seem that there really is just one big room.  The grey clouds poured out rain relentlessly at the beginning of the cruise and for a moment, I thought we would be stuck inside the cabin entire time. Eventually, the rains let out, and we made our way to the top of the boat, which also doubled as a deck. Ham was looking for sails. The famous sails on the junks you see on pictures of Halong Bay. There was none to be seen.

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We sailed through the green waters that were dotted by different sized limestone cliffs, which reminded me so much of Palawan, although not quite. Not really. There is something different about it. Something that made it uniquely Vietnamese. We met different boats along the way as we cruised through fishing villages. Our boat docked on one of the floating structures in the bay and we kayaked to explore more of the bay by ourselves. We found a nice stretch of beach on one of the far off islands. Our own deserted island.  We found ourselves swimming in the shallows, wanting to stay longer than we should.

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After about thirty minutes on the small island, we paddled back to the boat, where we ate lunch; Yummy local food: grilled fish, veggies stir-fried and in some sort of sauce, spring rolls, Vietnamese fare. We made friends with our fellow travelers: a Danish man and a group of Spaniards, who had been friends since college.

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P7290885Then we sailed out again, for maybe ten minutes, until our boat docked next to another boat, slightly bigger than what we were on. Apparently we can jump from the boat and swim to the small island which was meters away. That’s what the guys did anyway. Immediately, too. The smell of sunscreen followed them out of the boat. I was at the edge of the hull of our boat in my swimwear, hesitating.

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Finally, I jumped, slicing through the water in the most un-cool way possible. Sinking until I could push myself up to the surface. I wasn’t feeling very buoyant. I was right, of course. I’m not a strong swimmer. I haven’t swum since Romblon. That was back in April. And I had been too lazy to exercise. I could feel my labored breathing and my heart pumping way too hard. My arms and legs were killing me. I started to feel the panic build up inside me. I was already halfway between the boat and the beach and I couldn’t make up my mind whether to go back to the boat or to keep swimming to the beach. That is, until someone decided for me. Ham pulled me to him and helped me swim. I don’t think it took that long; fifteen minutes? Maybe less? But it felt like so much longer. I let out a shriek of glee when I finally felt the sand on my toes as we got closer to the shore. I remember giving him the tightest hug then. I felt so relieved! You would probably be able to imagine us making our way back to the boat about twenty minutes later. That was hard! For me, at least. We promptly rewarded ourselves with a beer on the boat after.

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Once everyone was back on the boat, we made our way to Monkey Island, our last stop for that day. As we approached the island everyone joked that we would need to swim to it. Imagine the look of horror on my face. We didn’t really have to swim to shore, though. The boat docked right on the beach to let us out.

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In Monkey Island, as the name suggests, there were monkeys frolicking about. I saw two or three being goaded by several tourists on the beach. The beach isn’t the cleanest I’ve seen. In fact, not clean at all. Bottles, pulverized Styrofoam, plastic bags and other random pieces of trash littered the shore. My companions and I discussed the state of the beach. Lars, the Danish guy, commented that it would’ve been really pretty, if only it was clean. I agree. The sand is cream colored and fine in texture. My feet felt wonderful as it sank into it. Some of the guys swam, while some of us stayed on the shore, beer in hand, soaking up some sun, discussing anything and everything.

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A few minutes later, we found ourselves back on the boat, making our way to the port of Cat Ba, and through the same fishing village we sailed through earlier. A village of house boats. That’s what they are, of course. Literal house boats. One was two stories high. They had dogs, too, as pets, possibly guarding the attached fish pens. Vendors would ply the small waterways, which formed streets between the houses, on their rowboats with their goods.

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All too soon, we were back in Cat Ba. Ham had invited Lars to join us for dinner and possibly drinks after to celebrate my birthday. It wasn’t my birthday yet. It won’t be ‘til the next night–the night I had to spend on an airport for my red-eye flight back to Manila. But as far as Ham was concerned, it was my birthday. So that night, we celebrated my unbirthday.

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After a shower, a change of clothes and a quick nap, Ham and I met Lars back at the corner by the tour company’s office and scouted for someplace to eat dinner. We ended up at this little restaurant where we had some delicious sea food and fried rice, which we paired with ice-cold beer. We also ended up running into the Spaniards, who just happened to be eating at the same place and invited us to the Good Bar. This is a western bar where we would find ourselves tossing back more beer and, for me, some rum and coke. I remember us going back to the hostel that night a little tipsy but totally happy. It was a great way to end a nice, full day in Cat Ba and Lan Ha Bay.

***

This post is part of a series I wrote about a recent trip to Vietnam. Check out the other posts by clicking on the links below:

4 thoughts on “Of Cruising Lan Ha Bay and Unbirthdays

  1. I’m glad your DIY Halong experience turned out to be alright. Honestly, I feel jealous. Twice I did it full-package. Probably not going to do it anytime soon. But it’s nice that I now know someone who’ve had a great time DIYing it.🙂

    • Hey, Paul, thanks for suggesting it.🙂
      I’m glad I pushed through with it, too. I don’t think the experience would be quite the same if I had taken the packaged tour.

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