Lan Ha Bay, Vietnam

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From a few days aboard our chartered junk boat in Lan Ha Bay.

The Bay Less Travelled


Ha Long Bay is considered one of the “new” 7 wonders of nature and it was one of the areas in Vietnam that I was most excited about visiting. Our plan was to charter a boat from Cat Ba Island for 3 days and 2 nights. We worked out a transfer to Cat Ba through our hostel in Ha Noi that included a day trip through Ha Long Bay. Arriving in Ha Long City we immediately encountered a veritable circus of tourists. Our boat along with scores of others headed to the same cave along with a place where we could enjoy nature by kayaking…in a circle around the boats with dozens of other people. The karst rock formations were stunning but all I could focus on was the preposterous amount of trash in the bay as well as the thousands of visitors. I was shattered.

We arrived on Cat Ba late that night and were informed that the boat we had reserved for the morning was gone so we could only take a 2 day 1 night trip now. Things are going downhill I thought. After our disillusionment with Ha Long Bay the travel agent said we could cut it from the itinerary and go through “less touristy spot” of Lan Ha Bay. “Less touristy spot…Yeah right,” I thought as I digested the typical line of SE Asian travel agencies.

Our Boat

The morning after a day of exploring the picturesque island of Cat Ba on our own by motorbike we met our boat in Cat Ba Harbor. Aboard for the ride were an English speaking guide, a boat captain and a cook. We left the harbor and motored past some floating fishing villages towards Lan Ha Bay. The water was much cleaner and there were very few other boats as we cruised alongside amazing rock formations.

I’m on a boat bee-yotch!

Morning shower












We kayaked to empty white sand beaches and into a water cave that opened up into a beautiful, secluded rock coliseum that appeared to have no entry or exit. That night we anchored in the middle of a quiet bay and reclined on the top deck. As we nodded off to sleep a shooting star illuminated the night sky above our heads. It was a stark contrast to the packed, miserable experience we had 2 days earlier.

Nug on Monkey Island


Cave Coliseum

Easy on the eyes

Fresh Beer and Rotten Restrooms


Hanoi is littered with local hole in the wall bars offering cheap beer known as “Bia Hoi”.  The draught beer at these establishments cost 4000-5000 dong (20-25 cents).  Most of these places are tiny and packed to the gills with locals and tourists spilling into the streets.  It resembles a high school keg party as a motorbike pulls up with a keg and they start filling up mugs.  There are usually tiny plastic chairs and tables that would be too small for the average 4 year old.  We have held 10 minute conversations with patrons who speak zero English while we speak zero Vietnamese.  The other common denominator of all these places is the grime.



The bathrooms always seem to offer some unexpected booby trap.  During our 1st night in Hanoi we got stuck in a torrential downpour while exploring the Old Quarter.  As luck would have it we happened upon a beer den just as the kegs were rolling in.  After our tab hit 80 cents I had to use the loo.  There was an inch of “water” in the cramped putrid smelling closet along with a urinal.  Several seconds after relief began I noticed a pattering on the floor.  I looked down to see that the urinal drained directly on to the floor by my feet.  To make it worse the pipe that led to the floor was like a waterslide with an angle that created a perfect splash onto my shins and ankles.  I moonwalked to escape the remaining flow.  Luckily, like most Vietnamese bathrooms this one had a hose so I was able to rinse myself off like a zoo animal.  I came back to the table and of course Nug said she needed to use the ladies room.  “Go upstairs, if you can,” I offered ominously.  “There is no western toilet down here and it’s gnarly.”  What happened next can only be explained from Nug’s POV.








Taking Ross’ suggestion of finding an alternate bathroom I decided to kindly ask a gentleman, who appeared to work for or very frequently visited this lovely establishment, if he could point me to the toilet.  Having an idea of the condition of the downstairs restroom I pointed enthusiastically up the set of stairs in front of me hoping he would confirm a different route to relief.  To my dismay he shook his head and smiled as he escorted me to the swampy closet which contained a urinal, several large buckets and a tile floor.  He gave me a reassuring shove through the doorway and closed the curtain which was supposed to provide me with privacy.  I caught my balance and spent the next few minutes contemplating my next move.  Unfortunately, my bladder won over my etiquette and after checking the contents of the buckets I found myself squatting over the drain in the corner of the room.  With an overwhelming feeling of shame I made my way back to the table and confirmed to Ross “That wasn’t water on the floor”.

Digging for Gold


I first noticed it in Saigon.  We were at a local restaurant and I was trying to get the waiter’s attention to settle our bill.  Service at restaurants in SE Asia is dependably slow.  As I waved my hand the uninterested looking waiter ignored my antics and started picking his nose.  To the untrained eye it looked like he was trying to touch his brain until he pulled a green nugget from his nostrils and inspected it proudly.  At that exact moment my flailing arms attracted his attention.  He flicked the booger aside before striding over to hand me the check.  I was disturbed by the experience and wrote it off as an isolated incident.  I was dreadfully wrong.  Apparently nose picking is a national pastime in Vietnam.  Bus drivers, hotel receptionists, bar backs, street hawkers and tour guides have all partaken in the hunt for gold in front of us and unabashedly.  I even watched a small child in our train cabin dig into the depths and produce a whopper which he proceeded to chow down on while his mother looked on lovingly and smiled.  After several weeks of being bombarded by the images, I found myself absentmindedly digging around in my beak.  Nug busted me and growled, “What are you doing?!”  Without a hint of guilt I replied, “When in Rome my Nug…”  With apparent disgust she shot back, “Just cause you are in Rome doesn’t mean you are a Roman.”  I retreated to the more understanding reception of our hotel to finish the job that I had started.

The Mascot


I know that it is wrong but for some reason I have always associated Vietnam with endless green rice fields and the famous rice hats worn by the laborers.  This misguided view was shattered the moment we reached the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon as the Vietnamese call it.  The scale, sprawl and constant buzz had me in shell shock.  I loved the game “Frogger” as a kiddo and crossing the streets in Saigon can only be described as Frogger on the most intense level.  If you show any hesitation when crossing an intersection a chorus of horns will rain down on you.  The best course of action is a slow, steady stroll and the motorbikes will part for you like a school of fish around a swimmer.  By the 3rd day we were laughing at the terror of tourists who we resembled only 72 hours prior.  A tiny, filthy juice stand “5 Boy Number One” was located several blocks from our homestay and offered massive, beautiful fresh fruit smoothies for 85 cents.  We become addicts and would frequent the stall 2 or 3 times per day.  We would bookend our days with the delicacy.  There was always a queue.

Nug modeling for 5 Boy Number One













A huge rat stalked the stall waiting for dropped morsels.  He would dart around customers in a disconcerting manner.  On our depressing last visit to 5 Boy Number One we saw the rat yet again and pointed it out to the proprietor.  She gave a hearty head shake and flashed a toothless grin at us while chuckling, “Haha…yes, pet!”

Hey buddy

Good Morning Vietnam


After several hot, stinky and grimy bus rides we rethought our transport plans to Vietnam.  We opted to take a local boat down the “Mighty Mekong” to Chau Doc.  The bright blue skies and intense sun made my uniform of boardshorts and tank top the right choice of clothing for the journey.  It was a 6 or 7 hour trip and involved a transfer of boats at the Vietnamese border.  We passed numerous fisherman and floating villages en route.  It was an awe inspiring experience to catch a small glimpse of the daily lives of these people.

Floating Village
Captain and Best Mate


The border crossing was laughable.  Our boat stopped at a ramshackle wooden dock and we all walked to the border patrol “office”.  It was little more than a wooden shack that looked like a fort made by a few 12 year old boys.  We continued down river and arrived in Chau Doc just as the sun went down.  We checked into a floating hotel in the middle of one of the villages.  I took off my tank top to shower and instantly spotted my folly.  Nug was right there to rub salt into the wound when I needed aloe instead.  She gloated, “I told you to wear sunscreen!  It doesn’t even look like you took your tank top off.”  Sensing that I was checkmated I sulked off to the shower.  My “tank top” was visible for the next week.

Just this once you were right Nug.
Beats the bus!