i've been away from the blog for a few days because i was on a two-night trip to vietnam's famous halong bay, an otherworldly place that is well-deserving of its UNESCO world heritage site status. it's hard to capture what the experience was like, and it's times like this that i wish i was a talented enough writer or photographer to adequately convey the sights, sounds, smells and emotions that accompanied this once-in-a-lifetime experience...
...but my words will have to suffice.
sunday morning, i boarded a bus with about 25 other folks (mostly aussies) for a three-hour ride to the coast. we drove through the vietnamese countryside, whizzing past families of three crammed onto one motorcycle, endless rice paddies in multiple shades of vivid green, women hunched over in pointy hats with tools in hand, water buffaloes plowing the fields, graveyards constructed at the highest point of the fields to avoid taking in water, chickens crossing the road (to get to the other side, naturally)... i practically had my nose glued to the window, taking it all in.
we arrived at the harbor around lunchtime and boarded our boat to cruise out on the bay. the day was warm and sunny without being hot and the view as we sailed out from the harbour was nothing short of stunning. of course i've seen water before, of course i've seen cliffs before... but something about halong bay is different. there are craggy cliffs and rocks everywhere, and the distant ones are always shrouded in a sort of mist that added to their mystique. kayaking was the perfect way to explore the bay, wandering around cliffs and getting up close to see the vegetation (and a few monkeys).
i spent the rest of the night hanging out with my fellow travelers on the boat. i was definitely one of the oldest people there -- most of the other passengers were university students on break between semesters. i asked them about their majors and they asked me about working life, something that i seem to have forgotten all about. it's funny how things like account assignments and ad agency drama seems to be a world apart from the world i'm living in now, one in which my days are consumed with finding places to eat, doing laundry on the cheap, debating which sites to visit and figuring out how to get from A to B.
anyway, back to halong bay. monday morning we arrived at cat ba island, the only island in halong bay that is inhabited by people. the group went on a morning hike to a pretty high peak, where i also climbed this insanely rickety rusty tower (that would DEFINITELY have been closed off in the united states) and feared for my life as i looked out over the green hills. we checked into our island hotel and then were free to do as we pleased for the afternoon. i ended up renting motorbikes with three other travelers from our group and we spent the afternoon zooming around cat ba island, exploring caves (including one that housed a secret hospital during the vietnam war... simultaneously fascinating and eerie), talking to local kids, trying not to run over the million stray dogs/goats/chickens and taking endless pictures of the incredible views. it was one of my favorite afternoons that i've had in a long time and i TOTALLY want to buy a motorbike (mine was more of a scooter-type deal since i can't drive manual).
i'm now in hoi an, about an hour's flight south from hanoi. it's a small town with a charming old quarter and a much more laid-back attitude than hanoi, which can start to grate on you if you're not careful. you're constantly haggled (you hear the two phrases "hello, motorbike!" and "hello, buy something!" at least 50 times a day), the roads are a total death trap and the constant honking of ten million motorbikes creates an incredible cacophony of sound that can totally drag you down. getting to hoi an was a bit of a headache since all the trains were sold out for tet (vietnam's lunar new year) but i'm proud to say that i managed to make it happen, using the now-very-familiar combination of plane/motorbike/airport shuttle/walking. it's strange to be on my own again after so much constant company during the halong bay trip, but it's also nice to be staying in a room by myself. hoi an doesn't have much of a hostel scene but the hotels are really reasonable... i have a double bed with private bath, window and A/C for $10/night (compared to the $7.50/night hostel in hanoi and $10/night hostel in shanghai).
unfortunately, i was feeling a bit under the weather today so the day was a bit of a waste (it was a transport/rest day) but i'm excited to dig into the city tomorrow and will report back as soon as i can.