On Tuesday Dec 10 we escape Hanoi and make the long drive northwest to Ha Long Bay, famous for its ~2000 karst formations – steep limestone islands piercing the large bay. The drive out of Hanoi gives us a better look at the city’s sprawl… and we pass several of the coal power plants spewing that milky smoke. The lanes are not clearly marked, and there’s not much driving etiquette here, so it’s a harrowing drive with plenty of passing – a constant game of chicken with oncoming trucks.
Arriving at Ha Long we’re disappointed to find that we’ve not escaped the haze. But the ships’ office is pleasant enough, and our host “Harry” is a classic eager-to-please Vietnamese. Sue’s taken care to stage us out of Bai Tu Long, on the northern edge of Ha Long Bay. We’re told the traditional excursion point for Ha Long Bay is now very crowded and polluted; the tourist ships have made a habit of dumping trash overboard in the wee hours. When Ha Long Bay was named a UNESCO world heritage site, the government took some steps to protect Bai Tu Long, providing better pollution control, and relocating fishermen from the caves within the karst formations to floating villages. Even so the haze detracts from the glamour of the karst formations.
Harry herds us on to a launch boat, and we motor over to our 4-deck ship along The Paoloma with guests from South Africa, Singapore, Spain and Kentucky. Our cabins are on the first of two living decks; the dining hall is on the enclosed third deck and atop the roof is a very pleasant open sitting area. Harry provides orientation over a delicious lunch while we motor into the bay, and soon we launch on our first excursion, a visit to a cave that used to house the local fisherman. It’s a pretty, easily accessed cavern, but not on the scale of many that we’ve toured in the western US. The climb provides for a nice elevated view of the bay.
Back on the boat and an hour further into the bay, we anchor and launch off on kayaks for a brief exploration around some of the karst formations, then the boys and I jump off the launch for some swimming before showering and cleaning up for sunset drinks on the top deck. The hazy skies scatter setting sun rays, and Sue needs no filter to capture colorful silhouette shots across the bay. The dinner of beef and pea soup, king prawns, stirfried fish and beef in black pepper sauce is excellent – we risk a bottle of red before bed.
I’d hoped to lose some weight here in Asia, but it’s not happening, so I rise early to get some exercise on the top deck, then join the Tai Chi class… my first. It is pleasantly mystical following our guides motions in the middle of the ocean with limestone pillars and a smoky sunrise. Tai Chi seems like a good morning warm up routine if I could only muster the patience.
After a light breakfast we disembark for a tour of the floating village where the cave-dwelling fishermen now live. The passengers split into groups of 6 and locals row us past the village, traditional junks, fishing nets, and some boys rowing with their feet while they pay out trolling line. We pass a natural arch then disembark at the obligatory shop… a pearl farm where we learn about seeding, farming, harvesting and ultimately selling pearls. It’s a pretty pleasant sanitized peasant picture.
Back on the ship we pack up, take some time to journal, then participate in a spring roll cooking class before brunch. Our ship rolls in to port soon afterward, and thanks to Sue’s good planning a taxi van whisks us off on the treacherous return trip to the Hanoi Airport. We know what’s coming this time so defend ourselves with distractions – books, card games, naps and crossword puzzles. With hours to kill at the airport we log on to the news sites and catch up on the insanity… Trump disbelieves nonpartisan intelligence agencies conclusions that Russians hack our election; he hires big Oil Putin Pal to be Secretary of State. A bigot for Attorney General. Climate change denier to head the EPA; then a witch hunt for civil servants who’ve worked to slow climate change. I can’t help but worry that our kids’ world might look a lot more like harsh Hanoi.