A Plan To Be Spontaneous


This blog entry about the events of Sunday, December 12, 2004 was originally posted on December 17, 2004.

DAY 421:  My “platoon” that I had arrived with in Vietnam two days before was on a much more relaxed schedule than me; they were after all in Vietnam with vacation/holiday-mentality, not that there’s anything wrong with that.  I on the other hand was merely rushing to cover the only-in-Vietnam sights before heading to the Philippines for Christmas.  The night before, I bid my platoon farewell for I would be transferred to a new unit in the morning.

I was booked on a two-day excursion to the only-in-Vietnam natural site of Ha Long Bay with Ocean Tours, set up by the woman at the hotel.  An organized tour was arguably the best way to see the remote parts of the bay since it required a boat; a tour was the most cost-effective way to go and it was offered by the dozens of tour operators in Hanoi anyway for about $15/day. 

I was picked up by a friendly Vietnamese guide named Thuy on time at 8h00 sharp and was led to a transport van filled with German and French tourists.  At a rendezvous point I was transferred to another unit, the English-speaking one, where by chance I sat next to the only other American in the group, a guy named Scott.

“Where are you from?”

“New York.”

“I grew up in Rockland County,” Scott said, referring to the upstate New York county across the Hudson River from the city.

“I was born in New York, but I grew up in Bergen County,” I said, referring to the suburban county also across the river.  Funny how small the world really is.

In my new “platoon” there was:  an old Swedish couple with their three adopted Vietnamese children, ages 8 to 14; an Italian couple; Bob and Roland, Australian father and son; Natalie from the UK; Andy the German; and real military buddies in the Australian armed forces, Andrew and Mark.  Our “squad leader” was Thuy, a very friendly and well-informed 28-year-old Vietnamese guy who led the introductions as the minibus head eastbound towards Ha Long City.

“I was with an American in Ha Long Bay before and he asked me what I thought of Americans, if I like or hate them,” Thuy said.  “Well, I was born after the war, [so I have no issues.]”  He continued by telling us that although the Vietnamese government didn’t want to forget the past, they didn’t want to dwell on it and just move on.  “The Vietnamese government says it wants to be friendly with all countries.  Yeah, even America.”

Laughter filled the bus and all eyes looked back at Scott and me.  Hey, don’t look at me, I thought.  I was born after the war too.

This was followed by more harmless cracks at America by Mark, who mentioned how weak the US dollar had become since a certain someone took the White House in 2000.

“Yes, I know [how weak the dollar is,]” I said.  “I’m reminded every time I meet a foreigner.  Which is everyday.”

BEING POKED FUN OF FOR BEING AMERICAN had been all fun and games in every country I’d been to thus far, although in Vietnam it was a bit different, what with all the history the USA has with the nation.  It’s funny how the US became obsessed with the search for WOMDs, chemical and biological weapons in Iraq in 2003, when they were the ones that used chemical weapons in Vietnam, (arguably) rather carelessly.  At a halfway point to Ha Long Bay we stopped by the Dai Nghia Humanity Center, a craft, food and souvenir market benefiting those children deformed from the USA’s “tactical usage” of Agent Orange — a sign was prominently hung up stating this, most likely to guilt people into buying stuff.

I bought thirty postcards and a Red Bull.

“I THINK THERE ARE MORE BOATS THAN HOTELS IN TOWN,” I said to my platoon.  Ninety minutes later we were at the Ha Long City harbor, along with about thirty or so other minibuses loaded with tourists — day trippers and multi-day guys like us.  With such a mass of people there were many boats to fulfill the demand and they all crammed next to each other in a wooden mass that could have formed a small flammable island.  (All pyromaniac readers out there should ignore what I just wrote.)  We waited at the dock with our gear while Thuy went to arrange our boat transport. 

“Do you know what the plan is?” I asked Scott.

“I don’t really know.  I just planned on being led,” he said.  “It’s more spontaneous,” he continued, smirking. 

Hmm, nice way to approach the organized tour:  Be ignorant to the agenda and everything is a surprise.  Good plan.

Thuy came back.  “We are going to the boat now,” he announced.  He led us to the ship, which was much nicer than I thought it’d be with a nice dining room with settings all set for lunch.  Later we saw the cabins were also very nice, with decent beds, private bathrooms and hot water.  “This is better than my hotel in Hanoi!” my assigned German roommate Andy told me.

The upper deck of the boat was the least attractive, although still decent for all intents and purposes.  We sat out on the bamboo flooring as the boat tried to muscle its way through the other boats surrounding it.  Eventually we were out of harbor and into the calm green waters of the Ha Long Bay.

“We are going to have the lunch now,” Thuy said when he came up to the top deck to announce the next “spontaneous” item on the agenda.  Food was also a pleasant surprise; the Ocean Tours’ chartered staff cooked up a feast fit for a king with Vietnamese dishes:  spring rolls, broiled fish, baby spinach and pork strips.

HA LONG BAY IS ONE OF VIETNAM’S GREAT NATURAL WONDERS, or rather, one of the world’s natural wonders ever since it was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO.  While the actual body of water is nothing to write home about, it is what is in the bay that gets so much international attention:  1,968 limestone island peaks that jut out of the water like rocky camel humps, similar to the limestone peaks near Yangshou in China

“Ha Long” translates to “dragon descending,” which refers to the local legend that the bay was protected from Chinese invaders by a mythical descending dragon.  After the Chinese retreated, the dragon simply settled down with the big scaling humps of his back protruding out of the water, solidified into limestone.

The ship cruised farther out from harbor until it reached the group of limestone islets, collectively all worthy of their World Heritage status at first glance.  Eventually we rode up to one of them, Sung Sot, or “Amazing Cave” as Thuy said.  Once inside it was apparent why it got its name.

“It looks like something out of a movie set,” Bob the Australian father said.

“Yeah, I was just going to say that!” I said.  I’d been in many caverns before, but this had to be the best of them all thus far.  Unlike some other places, the dramatic lighting actually worked its effect on the stalactites, stalagmites and columns without being too cheesy — the tourism authority really knew what they were doing.  I expected to see a magic lamp or treasure atop on of the stalagmites. 

“We will rest here and then go back to the boat,” Thuy said, citing the next item on the agenda.  “Here” was the wooden platform overlooking the lagoon where many other boats were coming in — which was also probably flammable (but don’t you pyros even think about it).  Not surprisingly, there was a gift and snack stand as well.  Although I had no intent on buying anything, we were there just long enough for me to cave in and spontaneously buy an ice cream cone — although it was probably all a part of their master plan.  Like I said, they knew what they were doing.

LIMESTONE ISLET PEAKS SURROUNDED US in every direction with the coming of sundown, and with the slight haze in the sky (or was it boat smog?) Ha Long Bay emitted a surreal fantasy vibe “like something out of Lord of the Rings,” Bob said.  However, the vibe was always ruined when one of the dozens of other boats zipped by — except for the ones with the cool-looking sails, that is. 

The next “spontaneous” activity was announced shortly after the boat anchored in the middle of the bay.  “We stopped for swimming,” Thuy announced to us. 

One by one we jumped off the top deck into the cold, but gradually bearable water with a slight current that made swimming like being on a treadmill.  The Swedes and Vietnamese kids jumped in, as did the Aussie military guys, Scott, and German Andy — Natalie almost didn’t jump in for fear of it being too cold until we talked her into it.  Hot showers warmed us up after, just in time for the spectacular sunset (other picture above) that led to nighttime.  Again there were so many boats around that the peaceful vibe was tainted; Bob said out the window it almost looked like we were near the mainland coast.

Afterwards we had dinner, which was also delicious, and also announced by Thuy.  Card games and tricks followed.  However I was pretty tired and slipped away, turning into my cabin bed early; it was the only thing I did that day that Thuy didn’t have his hand in. 

Now how’s that for spontaneity?

Next entry: Good Morning, Vietnam; Bad Evening, Vietnam

Previous entry: Rebel Without A Clue

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Comments for “A Plan To Be Spontaneous”


    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/17  at  12:11 PM

  • I want to go “here”.  That sucks about all the other boats, but it sure is beautiful.  That cave looks awesome too.

    Posted by Liz  on  12/17  at  04:22 PM

  • so where as been your most favorite sunset to date?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/18  at  09:28 PM

  • Yeah, 30 postcards and a red bull.  that should make us even grin

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/19  at  02:46 AM

  • MARKYT:  The sunset that stands out in my mind the most is from Day 49: Tally Me Banana.  (the “aura” picture)

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/19  at  09:12 AM

  • erik is sly. stealing away to take notes on his enviable little fliptop notebook. though also sometimes brandishing it, daring you to go on the record. cross chronicle if you wish to http://www.scottsslot.blogspot.com (“halong bay” post)

    Posted by scott  on  12/19  at  01:12 PM

  • all that for $15 bucks! ... sign me up

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/19  at  02:42 PM

  • Really nice… Remindes me of Ang Thong.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/20  at  02:40 PM

  • really nice entry. that cave was quite surprising. really getting your money’s worth this day. sweeeeet.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/21  at  09:54 PM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by BootsnAll.com. It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

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Next entry:
Good Morning, Vietnam; Bad Evening, Vietnam

Previous entry:
Rebel Without A Clue


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