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A peculiar journey through Vietnam's 'other' Halong Bay

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“Forget Halong Bay!” says the man I have just met. We’re sitting outside a bar in Da Lat, in Vietnam’s south central highlands, and the man has just asked me for a cigarette and is now talking at me loudly.

“It’s all about Lan Ha Bay. It’s super close to Halong Bay, just as beautiful, and there’s nobody there.” Despite the man being a perfect stranger, I have just eaten some great barbecue food, and my mood is such that I’m happy to entertain his outlandish claims. He continues on his helpful rant for some 20 minutes before leaving – presumably to go somewhere better than where I would think to go.

Two days later, I find myself in a stuffy Hanoi hotel room reading TripAdvisor reviews for Lan Ha Bay cruises. I find one by the name of Cat Ba Island Cruises (Cat Ba Island is the jumping-off point for Lan Ha Bay, I discover). TripAdvisor seems generally pleased with all things Cat Ba Island Cruises. My partner, Janna, and I ponder for a while. We both arrived in Vietnam excited to see Halong Bay, so to switch out that part of our itinerary on the advice of a loud stranger is something of a risk.

Eventually we decide to book the trip. I’ve had friends tell me they were a bit depressed by how crowded Halong Bay was, and the photos I find of Lan Ha Bay online look similar enough. The booking process involves me sending full payment (close to $400, from memory) to a random PayPal account.

I do not tell Janna about this, because I fear she may think me dim-witted (I already accidentally paid a local kid $20 to polish my sandals earlier today. The sandals themselves cost $8. All told, it was not a great transaction for me).

Janna definitely doesn’t feel confident. I can tell by the way she keeps looking at me with her “I don’t feel confident” face.

I receive no official confirmation email nor receipt from Cat Ba Island Cruises (information I also opt to keep from Janna), but an internet chat box man on their website called Mr. Luong informs me that we will be picked up at 6.30am. I haven’t dealt with many internet chat box men before, so I do not know whether I can trust Mr. Luong, or even if he is who he says he is.

Suddenly it is 7am the next day and we have not been picked up. I email Mr. Luong but he doesn’t reply. Then, at 7.15am, our bus arrives. We climb aboard with a handful of other confused-looking travellers and head to Haiphong (I find out it’s called Haiphong later — we had no idea where we were going at the time), the port from which we’ll catch a ferry to Cat Ba. Despite the late pick up, this is going well, I think.

My positive outlook is swiftly shattered on arrival at Haiphong ferry terminal – which is essentially a tin shed on the edge of an industrial wasteland – where it becomes apparent that we have missed our ferry because our bus was 45 minutes late. The next one isn’t for an hour. We get some crisps and I pass the time by taking photos of Janna.

The ferry arrives and we make the 25-minute trip to Cat Ba Island, then jump in a minibus that – I think – is taking us to Cat Ba town. We arrive at what is supposed to be Mr. Luong’s place of business, but Mr. Luong isn’t there. I call Mr. Luong and he says his friend is going to come and pick us up in a taxi.

By this point in the trip I have established that I do not feel entirely confident in Mr. Luong’s organisational skills – skills which, I don’t know, are probably quite useful to have when you run a tour company. Janna definitely doesn’t feel confident. I can tell by the way she keeps looking at me with her “I don’t feel confident” face.

Mr. Luong’s friend arrives and drives us no more than 30 seconds around the corner, where he drops us by the curb and points at a man who is waving at us. We assume we have to follow the man, and not just wave back, so we do. Janna does the face again. He leads us to a small fishing boat and beckons us to come aboard. I should mention here that at no point since leaving the hotel has anyone told us what we’re doing. Aside from the waving man, we are on our own as we climb aboard the boat – the travellers from the bus have all joined other tours.

The motor splutters like a pensioner choking on a Hobknob and we head out of the harbor. “Do you think this is the start of the tour, or are we still heading to the start of the tour?” I ask Janna. She doesn’t know. It’s a mystery.

Soon, we are surrounded by Halong Bay-like scenery ­– all limestone karsts and untaken photographs ­– but there is nobody else here. Our voyage takes us around a few more of the bays before we begin approaching what looks like a floating shack. As we draw closer, it becomes clear that it is a floating shack. There seem to be a handful of other travellers on the floating shack, which will from now on be referred to as The Island, and they appear to be drinking beers and being generally quite carefree.

On the island, our driver (or is he a captain?) hands us our bags and wanders over to what looks like a bar, lights a cigarette, takes a seat and starts chatting to a local woman in Vietnamese. When I booked this trip, I was given the option of sleeping on the boat or sleeping at a homestay. I ticked the homestay option, and I think ­– though I’m not sure – that this may be it.

It’s essentially a floating, ramshackle, miniature motel built out of splintered plywood, but it’s not without charm. There’s a makeshift bar, a kitchen and three simple rooms. Janna and I sit at a table away from the other travellers because we’re not really sure what’s going on and everything’s a bit intimidating when you’re not really sure what’s going on. About 15 minutes later, a woman comes and asks us if we want some lunch. We reply in the affirmative, and not long after we’re bequeathed with spring rolls, pan-fried chicken, and vast quantities of other such deliciousness.

‘You have 10 minutes to see the monkeys,’ shouts one of the crew from our boat as we clamber down a sketchy plank and onto the beach. ‘Or you can go for a hike.’

“I was told there would be fishing,” I say to Janna after lunch. Janna shrugs. I walk over to our driver/captain and perform a “hello, can I do some fishing please?” series of hand gestures. Before long, I am looking out at the pristine Lan Ha Bay, rod in hand, breeze in my hair, beer within reach, not catching fish. The other travellers have been coming and going on kayaks, so, having had my fill of the fishing I so desperately craved, I stroll over to Janna and ask if she wants to do the same.

The kayaking is some of the best and most relaxing I have ever participated in. We drift away from The Island and paddle around for a while, the harmony disturbed only when I drop my can of Saigon beer into the water and we clumsily perform an about-face to retrieve it.

We pass floating fishermen’s houses, all of which seem to have dogs who have become very adept to hopping across the wooden structures’ beams without falling in. Janna keeps talking about sharks. As we cruise around the limestone karsts, we don’t see or hear another soul – save for the odd barking dog. It’s silent. It’s magic. It’s better than Halong Bay. At least, it’s better than how I imagine Halong Bay to be.

It transpires that The Island is the homestay option, so stay we do. We drink heavily with a French trio and have dinner with an American girl who lives in China ­– the only other person to spend the night on The Island with us. Every person we’ve talked to has been as confused as we are, despite booking through different tour companies.

The following morning we’re picked up by a bigger boat, with a few other travellers on it, and taken on a cruise. We head up into the mouth of Halong Bay but we turn around before we see any other boats ­– neither Janna nor myself mind. Lan Ha has already blown our expectations out of the limestone karst-flanked water.

On our way back to the mainland, we stop off at Monkey Island. Janna and I have to be back at the ferry terminal to catch a bus to the other side of Cat Ba at 4pm, and it’s now 3.30pm. “You have 10 minutes to see the monkeys,” shouts one of the crew from our boat as we clamber down a sketchy plank and onto the beach. “Or you can go for a hike.” Confused, we walk up the beach and see the monkeys – a couple of whom are swigging Tiger beer from the can ­– then head back to our boat. It was a brief and bizarre affair.

Our boat isn’t where we left it. It’s a hundred metres or so off the shore, cruising off in the opposite direction. Not a huge deal under normal circumstances, but our bags, passports and laptops are on that boat. Luckily, we spot a tiny water taxi approaching the shore. We wade out frantically, climb on board and point to the boat with our stuff on it. A couple of Italian lads, whom I assume are in the same position judging by their panicked expressions, join us. “Follow! Follow!” we say to the water taxi driver. He understands, thankfully, and off we go, in hot pursuit of our essential travel items.

The man I had met was right. I had forgotten all about Halong Bay.