We went all-out on our cruise of Ha Long Bay (in Vietnam). We figured it’s once in our life, and the difference between all-out and just OK was less than a hundred dollars a day for 3 days. In the scheme of my life, there are lots of places I waste that and don’t even notice.

All-out meant the one upper floor cabin on a 5 cabin Junk. Big suite with jacuzzi, rain-shower, big bedroom. A wall full of windows. The works. Really top shelf. Probably the only time in my life I’ll be so extravagant, and I thoroughly enjoyed it! (Fortunately, these sorts of extravagant excesses don’t creep into my life often, so I don’t need to worry much about falling into a life of decadence…)

We used a line called Indochina Sails. Our son in Ha Long Bay said they were considered one of the best lines and had a good reputation. We chose to go on their smaller (of 3) boats – one with 5 cabins called the Valentine. As I said, we booked their best cabin on that boat, for less than a hundred dollars a day more than the other cabins. When we set the cruise up, I wondered how they worked out the logistics of having folks onboard who were 2-day guests and some who were 3-day guests.

Here’s what they do: All three boats make the same exact “turn” every day. They go out into the bay in the afternoon, and they return the next morning. The 2-day guests stay on their boat, and slog through the throngs of hundreds (probably thousands) of other tourists from countless cruise lines slogging through those same sights each afternoon and each morning. However, the 3-day guests get off the boat and spend day 2 on a nice day boat, sharing the boat with the other 3-day guests from the other 2 boats. Then in the afternoon, the day boat meets up again with the 3 big boats, and you get back on your own boat.

This works really well. Without going into more detail than needed here, let me say that I didn’t understand it well, and complained loudly when I heard about this boat shuffling that was going to happen. I felt like I paid to be on this boat, and I didn’t want to be shuffled around. I ended up on a cell phone with the director of the cruise line, whose name is Jerry. Jerry heard my complaint, was the perfect customer service gentleman, and wanted to do whatever he could to make things right with me. In the end, he persuaded me that I was likely to enjoy the second day if I did things their way.

He was right. Like I said before, that middle day is when you get away from the crowds, relax, and see the things that the other thousands are missing. Admittedly, if more people did the 3 day cruise, this would not be the case. But at least for now, hardly anyone stays for all 3 days.

That middle day on the day boat, we had the best “guide” we’d had for the whole trip. He was relaxed, down to earth, and a lot of fun to be around. We also shared the boat with 2 other English-speaking westerners, so it was good to have familiar conversation. One couple was from Australia, and one was from England. Our conversations were truly a delight, and it was really interesting to talk things like politics with folks who have such a different perspective from my own.

The best part of the day – for me at least – was after we got to our own boat. While the newly arrived 2-dayers departed the boat to go visit the fishing village, (which we had already done the day before), I stayed back and hung out down below at waterline. This is where folks come and go on the tender. It’s also the place where the local fishing village folks sell stuff to you. These are folks who live on the water their entire lives. Their houses float, their school floats, and their church floats. The cruise boats have become a way to suck money from the tourism industry into their village. If I’m gonna have a beer anyway in the evening, I’d rather buy if from the local mom selling them out of her little boat than from the cruise line anyway – she needs it more than they do.

So I spent a couple bucks, then sat down in the hatch, and enjoyed one of the beers. Three boats filled with little girls from the village came over to sell me shells. They were savvy merchants nodoubt, and I admired their entrepreneurial spirit and spunk. I bought a few shells from them after some hard negotiations. Once they figured out that I was done buying stuff, the fun really started.

I was different from most of the tourists they were used to seeing – I wasn’t rushing past looking to “do” their village. I was just sitting in the afternoon sun, enjoying the ocean. I was someone fun to try out their English on. They were laughing and teasing and giggling – making all sorts of fun jokes at my expense I have no doubt. They were being just exactly like little girls all over the world. And I was in heaven.

3 boats, 3 families. I learned who was sisters to whom, though their names were tough for me. I learned how old they each were – ranging from 14 (nearly ready for marriage by their village standards as I understand), down to 5. The 5 year-old amazed me with her agility as she climbed from boat to boat as-if she were playing on a jungle-gym.

We laughed and joked and learned and had a great time. Until one of the boat crew came down, and the spirit of the encounter changed. They were obviously careful about how the boat crews viewed them, and the all jumped back in their own boat once the crew member was around. It didn’t take long until they decided they needed to head off to different pastures to see if they could sell some shells.

My heart was more than a little sad to lose my new friends. Our visit had been the perfect highlight to a wonderful middle day. We’d spent time in a kayak, had monkey throw rocks at us, visited one of the thousands of caves in the area – just the six of us and our guide, and got a great education at a local pearl farm. Our lunch was outstanding, and the boat was every bit as pleasant and enjoyable as the Valentine. Everyone on-board agreed this must be the best part of the cruise – this middle day.

So I ask myself: If this middle day is the enjoyable one, why is it that the vast majority of people only take the 2 day cruise?

Local Vietnamese folks certainly can’t afford a cruise like this. The majority of people I observed seemed to be from Korea, probably some Chinese as well. Maybe 1 in 4 were Westerners like us. It was the Tet holiday, which may have increased the percentage of Asian tourists since it is their big holiday. So maybe in normal times there are 50% Westerners? Just guessing. In any case, the point is that folks are on this cruise as only one part of a vacation – they’re not here “just for the cruise”.

Ha Long Bay is one of the checkmarks they have on their list of things to do in Vietnam or SE Asia. As such, their travel agent packed as much as possible into their 2-week trip. They wanted to “do Ha Long Bay”, and why spend 3 days of the vacation “doing” Ha Long Bay when you can get the job done in 2?

I get this, I really do. Under different circumstances, and at a different point in my life, I have no doubt I would have done the same thing. Pack as much in as you can. “Do” as many sites as possible.

But when I spend my vacation like this, it’s just a big blur with a bunch of checkmarks at the end. I followed the throngs from one obligatory overlook to the next, and snapped the obligatory snapshot at each to prove I was there, but I missed the guts of all the places I went.

I got the checkmark, but I missed the good day. I missed meeting people of real interest, and enjoying a delightful meal on a beautiful woodenm deck dappled with sunlight glinting off the calm water around. I missed the gecko and the crab deep in the isolated cave. I missed the young woman who reminded me of my daughter trying to teach me about pearl cultivation through the few dozen words of English that we had in common. I missed monkeys throwing rocks at my kayak, and Peggy learning to paddle a kayak all by herself.

I got the checkmark, but I missed the heart and soul of the place.

I’m glad I’ve learned and matured a bit in this way, and changed the way I look at traveling. The number of checkmarks I make on a list might be fewer than it would have been in the past, but my enjoyment, fascination, of love of each of the places I visit is far greater.

If you read my blog, you know that the concept of “place” and the concept of “journey” are important to me. When it comes to a vacation, we need to ask ourselves why it is that we go to a “place”, and why it is that we take a “journey”. If a “place” is nothing more than a checkmark on a list of sites to “do”, I might as well buy a good video and “do” the place in HD in the comfort of my couch. If a “journey” is nothing more than a series of crowded flights and passport stamps, does it really matter where the plane lands?

As I keep evolving, I’m pretty sure vacations are going to become less and less cluttered. It’s those middle days of a visit to a place where I really learn to feel and see the place – where I can really start to let it seep into me. It’s that slow boat ride in the sun where the journey takes place, or lazily sitting in the back of the kayak while Peggy learns to paddle it, not on an airplane at 35,000 feet.

Jerry was right.

Oh, and the whole ascending and descending dragon thing? It’s how the bay was formed. The dragons created the unique islands that the bay is famous for out of jade as they were ascending and descending, in order to give the people protection from invaders and from weather. Watching the light grow as I sat on the top deck of our boat and marveled at the beauty shimmering on the calm ocean of early dawn, seeing these eerie stacks of egg-shaped green islands emerged from the bay all around me, the legend made perfect sense to me.

(Source : neilhanson.com)
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