Taking our chances

Halong Bay, Vietnam
Sunset in Halong Bay, Vietnam | Photo by Lauren Girardin

(Don’t get confused later when I talk about going to China in February. Remember, we’re behind in our storytelling!)

There are more horror stories about Halong Bay tours than positive reviews, but it’s next to impossible to see the karsts without getting on a tour boat at some point. We talked to one couple who scored a bargain price Hanoi hostel only to be abruptly kicked out when they booked their Halong Bay tour elsewhere. We heard of rats running amok in dining rooms by day and audibly gnawing inside bedroom walls by night. The consensus about Halong Bay tours is: you take your chances.

When tour boats attack, Halong Bay, Vietnam
When tour boats attack, Halong Bay, Vietnam | Photo by Lauren Girardin

After so many tales of ROUS’s, inedible food, and promises not kept, we decided to spend a little more on a tour with ODC Travel, a company, though not strongly recommended, at least wasn’t maligned online. Our tour was remarkable only for the 60 year range in ages of passengers and because of the enthusiasm of our tour guide, an opinionated, charming talkaholic who told us more about modern-day Vietnam than did anyone else in the country.

Watching the karst panorama of Halong Bay unroll from the tour boat’s top deck is like watching the Christmas yule log on TV – it’s a scene to space out to. After two days of kayaking around karsts and taking guided walks through garishly lit caves, Todd and I escape, as planned, from the over-scheduled grind of our tour to relax on the beach at Cat Ba Island in the north of Halong Bay.

The next day, though it’s too early for dinner, we bike up to Green Mango, the swankiest restaurant on unswanky Cat Ba Island. We want to check the menu to see if their kitchen really slings something unique and if our modest long-term budget can handle the indulgence. Though dozens of other places line Cat Ba’s shore road, most are the same lazy, tourist restaurants that too often serve up food poisoning along with their gummy fruit pancakes, fried rice, and local whole fish – the latter of which, though nicely grilled, is still under suspicion for causing Todd’s stomach flutters yesterday.

Karsts of Halong Bay, Vietnam
Karsts of Halong Bay | Photo by Lauren Girardin

Another young American couple is scrutinizing Green Mango’s menu. We saw this pair earlier in the day, when they arrived at one of Cat Ba’s small beaches just as we were leaving – an Asian woman whose body language exudes happiness from head to toe and a Caucasian guy with a rockin’-yet-dorky dirty blond handlebar mustache. Between their foodie enthusiasm and the guy’s facial hair that almost outshines Todd’s crazy sideburns, how could we not invite these complete strangers to meet us later for dinner?

Conversation comes easily over our many quickly emptying dinner plates. For the moment, Benand Tutuare living in Chengdu, China though they’re both headed back to the States soon. They came into Halong Bay overland from China for a vacation in northern Vietnam.

At one point, I admit to them that, “It’s a relief to talk to other Americans, just for the simple fact that you can understand our natural mumbling American monotone.”

Todd and I are surprised and envious when Tutu corrects me – she’s Chinese and English is her second language; she picked up her impeccable Southern California accent while in the U.S. for college. Still, Tutu can commiserate with us about how our many months of speaking simplified “tourist English” with non-fluent travelers and locals has caused our vocabulary to deteriorate.

Buoys and shore, Halong Bay, Vietnam
Buoys and shore, Halong Bay, Vietnam | Photo by Lauren Girardin

Though it’s four countries and nearly three months away, Todd and I greedily pick Ben and Tutu’s brains about where we should visit in China.

Tutu is quick to exclaim, “You should come see us in Chengdu! We don’t leave for the U.S. until late February – it’s perfect timing! See the pandas. The food is fantastic. We’ll get hot pot! Really, Chengdu is a great city and from there you can check out the rest of southwest China.”

“We don’t even have a guidebook yet!” laughs Todd. “But we’ll get one soon and try to figure out what our plan is and let you know if we can visit you in Chengdu.”

Though we’re all headed to Hanoi, we take different boats through captivating, karst-riddled Halong Bay. The landscape is surreal, the tall karst mountains speckling the misty sea, looking like so many just-cooked gnocchi floating on the surface of a pot of boiling water.

Love bench and napping dog, Cat Ba Island, Vietnam
Love bench and napping dog, Cat Ba Island, Vietnam | Photo by Lauren Girardin

Back in Hanoi, I compulsively check our hostel’s book-trade shelf for any novels worth swapping. Manh Dung Guesthouse is popular so the books get a lot of turnover. Judging from the usual pickings, most tourists on holiday read churn-’em-out authors like Dean Koontz, Dan Brown, and Lincoln Childs; we’ve had an impossible time finding worthwhile reads, even in used bookstores.

But today’s an auspicious day – the hostel’s shelf holds a nearly new copy of the most recent Lonely Planet China’s Southwest and a Mandarin phrase book. It’s an unbelievable coincidence that right after Tutu and Ben were selling us hard on the southwest, the two books we need for a visit to that part of China were waiting for us.

Finally, before Todd and I head out for a day of wandering Hanoi’s confusing streets, I check Facebook, which has become more compulsory than email for staying in touch with friends met on the global road. I’m psyched to read a wall post from Tutu: “We are in Hanoi now and will leave for Sapa tomorrow. If you guys are still in town, let us know and maybe we can meet up for another good dinner…”

Sunset watcher, Halong Bay, Cat Ba Island, Vietnam
Sunset watcher, Cat Ba Island, Vietnam | Photo by Lauren Girardin

I wall back a plan that won’t involve the cell phone we don’t have. “Let’s meet at the foreigners’ bia hoi junction at Pho Dien Liet & Pho Luong Ngoc Quyen around 6:30pm.”

Later at the bia hoi crossroads, Todd and I have lost track of time. Todd’s working on his second bia hoi, local “fresh” beer sold out of the keg for as absurdly little as 3,000 dong a glass (just 18 cents). I’m sullenly milking my much pricier bottle of Bia Hanoi, since the fresh hops of the bia hoi give me an incapacitating migraine.

Many of these bia hoi shops are little more than dents in the wall, barely big enough to hold the keg and a rack of clean-enough glasses, which must keep the overhead low. This particular bia hoi intersection attracts tourists and expats, so shops charge double the normal per glass price, while bathrooms and food are non-existent. Still, bia hoi is the cheapest beer in Asia.

As the crowd of drinkers grows, the short plastic lawn chairs that pass for seating throughout Vietnam illegally spread into the streets. Twice tonight the bia hoi shopkeepers have hurriedly crammed the crowd back onto the narrow sidewalks, feigning innocence as a cop car cruises by, after which everyone promptly spills back into the intersection without a pause in our drinking or conversation.

Finally, just as Todd and I are getting motivated by hunger to leave for dinner, Tutu and Ben arrive. Practically skipping as she comes over, Tutu says, “Hey guys! How awesome!”

Duck rotisserie, Halong Bay, Vietnam
Duck rotisserie, Halong Bay, Vietnam | Photo by Lauren Girardin

As they grab seats and beers, I say to Tutu, “It’s so cool that this plan worked out.”

“Worked out? What do you mean?”

“You got my reply on Facebook to meet and here we are! I love Facebook.”

“Oh wow! I didn’t get your message. The internet at our hostel wasn’t working today. You’d told us about this beer place and it sounded cool, so we decided to come by. We didn’t know you’d be here!”

Through our laughter, Tutu and I manage to explain to the guys that, despite our attempt to make a plan, it’s coincidence that brought us together again in this sprawling city of 6 million people.

Todd jumps in, “No problem. You hungry? They’ve got boiled peanuts here – they’re pretty good! Hey, you’re never gonna believe this other coincidence, but there was a southwest China guidebook and a Mandarin phrasebook sitting on our hostel’s book-trade shelf today…”

Photos from Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

If you can’t see the photo slide show above, view the photo set on Flickr.