We had finally secured our cruise for Halong Bay. The streets of Hanoi were lined with travel centres and vacation bookers, each stocked with dozens of glossy books detailing the majestic splendour of their particular line of megafancy boats. We were wracked with indecision because of the mix of information we had been seeing on the internet. For every positive review of a company we found, we found just as many assuring us that the cruise line was corrupt and horrific. We read tales of rats and cockroaches, of soiled linens and terrible food, of overpriced drinks and actual capsizings. We wanted to travel Halong Bay in moderately priced style, but it seemed like we would need to be willing to pay heavily if we wanted to guarantee both our safety and reduce the likelihood of live scorpions in our staterooms.
Once we had finally settled, we set off, stowing most of our excess gear in Hanoi. We were to be on open water, at one with the sea, lost amidst ancient floating mountains and deep within unseen mists. In a single bag we packed only the essentials: some clothes, a few books. Sunglasses and bathing suits. Cameras. Our spirit of adventure.
Also, roughly 2 litres of bargain vodka stowed within empty water bottles. We had read that the drink prices once you were marooned at sea became too much for our tight-wad budget, and the uncorking fees would run nearly 4 times the actual price of the liquor we purchased. We were acting like rowdy teenagers heading to prom, but we felt we needed to be prepared.
We set sail. The boat was incredibly nice, and as I peered out from my private room, I could feel myself lording our luck over the people on the bedbugs ‘n’ cold noodles boats bobbing gently along the horizon.
Because there were so many options out in the water, though, many of the companies tended to collude to generate a fairly homogenous Halong Bay Tourist Experience. Watch as we glide serenely towards this particular cave, or around these mountains. Let us join the other thousand tourists for a round of kayaking, and maybe try to avoid getting crushed by the numerous other tourist boats sloughing around the kayak heap. Now let us jet to the beach island, where all of the tourist boats gather for the exact same allotted hour, so you can all cram into one 50m by 50m square of buoyed ocean to swim in.
On our second day adrift, half of our boat cleared out and we were shuttled onto a smaller boat for more advanced Tourism. We four (joined by our Norwegian compatriot, Yngvild [pronounced exactly as its spelled]) were taken to distant islands, to distant mountains, to other distant tourist trails.
Even here it felt like the game was on rails, like our path was on predestined tracks. We motored out to hidden coves for swimming and lunch (evading the enormous jellyfish along the way), joined by other boats following the same itinerary. When we quietly kayaked into hidden caves and forgotten, watery valleys, we met a dozen Germans and Americans on honeymoons. When we drifted in the afternoon sunlight, it was astride a another boat filled with French people also drifting in afternoon sunlight. When we pulled over to a pearl farm for a hardsell, it was exactly synchronized with numerous other boats full of tourists. (These people, however, had booked fancier boats and gave actual consideration to the incredibly expensive pearl jewellery and pearlophernalia available for purchase. Upon entry to the pearl shop, we checked a price tag, laughed aloud, and scrambled back onto our boat.)
We were in a natural wonder of the world, certainly, and it felt a little difficult to discover. It was a tourism boon, a great wellspring for the local economy, and the people working the Halong Bay circuit were skilled and efficient at draining foreign dollars from people desperate to float in the bay of descending dragons.
And yet, even the well-oiled machine could not bring us down. We could feel people burying their hands deep within our pockets, we could feel the strain of the overzealous itinerary, we winced as we had to smuggle our cheap, adolescent alcohol aboard lest we fall victim to steep drink prices. It was overcrowded and filled with squawking tourists and you could no longer swim in the main area where boats parked because it was filled with poop and mutant jellyfish the size of whalesharks.
But it was still Halong Bay.
I wonder, sometimes, where my threshold is beyond which overly touristy pressure and money grubbing will sour my experience of natural beauty. Where the wrangling, where the pencil-moustached gladhanding, where the greased-palmed slickery would totally drain my ability to enjoy a travel experience. In a place like Halong Bay, I think I would actually need someone to steal my kidneys, for someone to rifle through my belongings and toss them into a mulcher, for someone to steal my passport and sell me into servitude before I grew disheartened.
Halong Bay, even smoggy and rife with tourists and crawling with jellyfish beyond the comprehension of our pitiful modern science, cannot be dampened. It is too beautiful, too majestic, too awesome. It is a Teflon attraction, a natural wonder so wondery and natural that no amount of tourism artifice around it could totally ruin its greatness. If they installed a rollercoaster that slid from mountain to mountain, spraying oil and cotton candy directly into the ocean, Halong Bay would still stand, amazing and inscrutable and invincible before them.
I don’t remember where I first saw a picture or heard of the place. I was a child, certainly, maybe watching a travel documentary or some tourism commercial. Wherever I was, I imagine my little boy eyes lighting up, seeing strange rocky skyscrapers erupting out of the water and the mist, piercing the clouds and surrounded by floating ancient Chinese schooners and junks. At the time, I had no idea where such a place could be, how I might get there, if these rocks were actually fossilized dragons frozen, locked down to the sediment at the bottom of the bay, resting for centuries until they were strong enough to break free. I knew I needed to get to this place, and I think I knew even then that nothing would stop me from finding it, and nothing could stop me from enjoying it.