Finding quiet in Vietnam

A woman sells spices and dried shrimp at a street market in central Hanoi.
A woman sells spices and dried shrimp at a street market in central Hanoi.

Finding quiet in Vietnam

by: Ashley Rowland | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: January 19, 2013

Stroll through Hanoi’s tourist-packed Old Quarter, and you can’t miss the nearly identical posters plastered in the windows of the countless travel agencies here: A picture-perfect seascape of sparkling blue water and other-worldly rocks jutting dramatically from the ocean.

Ever since I’d seen photos of Halong Bay years ago, I’d wanted to come here. But when I boarded a boat to see the bay last November, it was gloomy, overcast and downright chilly — not quite the tropical paradise advertised in the posters.

My trip started at 8 a.m., when we met in Hanoi outside an Australianrun cafe/tourist agency for the quiet, three-hour bus ride to Halong. Traveling with me were four couples, three of them on extended backpacking trips through Southeast Asia.

We rode out of smoggy Hanoi through the Vietnamese countryside, past farmers gathering rice in golden fields, and scarecrows wearing traditional Vietnamese black pajama-like outfits and conical hats.

It was early afternoon when we reached Vietnam’s northwest coast and boarded our boat, a simple but clean two-story vessel with a top-level deck, a central dining area, and rooms with twin beds and bathroom.

As we sailed out of the harbor and into the bay, what struck me was the silence. After the grit and bustle of Hanoi, the only sound here was our boat churning through the water, and, occasionally, another tourist ferry or tiny Vietnamese fi shing boat.

Legend has it that Halong Bay’s nearly 2,000 limestone pillars were made by dragons. Today, the caveridden rocks are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the country’s top tourist destinations.

A handful of those caves are open to tourists. We docked outside one of the largest ones and got in line, shuffl ing through the cave behind tour groups from France and Germany to look at stalagmites and stalactites lit with tacky neon lights. The line bottlenecked at one protruding rock that, our guide not-so-subtly pointed out, looked like a part of the male anatomy.

As we left, Vietnamese women tried to sell us snacks and “Coca” — the Vietnamese name for Coca-Cola from rowboats that doubled as mini-marts.

They were part of small fi shing communities of floating villages on the bay, in electric blue and green houses, some decorated with drying laundry and Halong, continued from page 19 hammocks.

After our visit to the tourist trap cave, it was time to go swimming. We climbed on the edge of our two-story boat, and jumped into water that was surprisingly warm and salty.

After a dinner of fish— morning glories sautéed with garlic, tofu and rice — we docked for the night in an inlet alongside other tour boats.

We woke up the second morning and had a simple breakfast of toast, jam, tea and coffee. For an extra $5, we rented kayaks for an hour. We paddled through a cave underpass, low enough that we could reach up and touch the cave ceiling, and popped out in a dramatic cove enclosed by towering rocks, the tallest we had seen on our cruise. The scenery was breathtaking, but in this tourist-heavy part of the bay, the water was slick with patches of oil and bits of garbage.

After kayaking, our boat moved to a cleaner, less traffi cked part of the bay for a mid-morning swim, our last outing before returning to the harbor.

The rocks were stunning. Even though the weather was overcast and drizzly during much of the trip, they were hauntingly beautiful — in the rain, morning light, and dusk — and seemed to change moods in different lights and weather.

I booked my tour through the Kangaroo Café, an Australian-run cafe-travel agency recommended by an American expat in Hanoi. My two-day, onenight tour cost $62, but hotels and travel agencies in Hanoi sold tours on larger, swankier boats for $200 or more. Some of my boatmates had seen ads in Hanoi for bargain tours geared toward backpackers that started around $40, air-conditioning optional.

For more information on booking a tour to Halong Bay, go to

E-mail Ashley Rowland at

Tags: Travel
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