When the bus pulled up to the departure point for Halong Bay I was a little put-off by the incredible number of tourists. But I had heard that Vietnamese drive boats the same way they drive motorbikes and I was looking forward to that.
As it turns out, the bay of 3,000 islands proved big enough to avoid other tour groups once we left the harbour. After a stop at a secluded beach it was time to go kayaking.
A British guy in the group claimed to be an expert kayaker, who had braved furious rapids for years. I wasn’t an expert kayaker by any means, but I had done it enough to speak of it casually, which is what got him started on his rant.
“It’s just like a canoe,” I said.
“A canoe?” yelped the expert. “It’s not at all like a canoe. It’s a kayak!”
Our guide gave us the kayaks and told us to be back in an hour. The only rules were no leaving the kayak and no swimming. There were three groups: myself and a Swedish girl, two British, and a German couple.
We took off for a set of karsts that looked like none of the other tour groups had gotten to yet.
It was exciting to paddle up close to the edge of one of the islets. The limestone facade jutted out of the water – seemingly from nowhere – and reached into the sky.
We paddled through a tunnel in one of the karsts and found ourselves inside a large alcove, surrounded on all sides by a tall oval island. We floated around without talking or paddling. The slapping of the water against the sides of the kayaks was all that caused a slight echo.
There was no one else around so we decided it was time for a swim. We had a long pleasant swim around our inlet and back into the cave. The sun began to set and we decided we had better get back to the boat before it was dark.
We all got back in our kayaks easily except the two British people, who capsized the kayak and lost a set of glasses and a mobile phone. They claimed to have been stung by a jellyfish.
“A jellyfish! Can you believe that?”
After a laugh we took off, in hope of finding the boat before we lost the sun.
Once out of the cave we paddled in the general direction of the boat but we couldn’t quite remember where it was. The sun had gone down and we had to circumvent some islands that none of us could remember or see. The Germans were strong and shot out ahead of us. I was paddling hard but couldn’t keep up and the two Brits fell even farther behind.
By the time we had turned a corner to where we thought the boat was, we had completely lost the light and couldn’t see our boat. We did see a few boats in the distance and we chose the middle one and paddled for it. But the boats were moving and we lost which one we were paddling for.
For a long while we paddled from boat to boat without finding the right one. I was a little worried and my arms were tired but it was also stirring to paddle around the karsts in the dark. We had no sense of direction and no idea where we were going.
I was a little disappointed when I saw our guide come paddling up to us with a flashlight. He directed us back to the boat and went out after the two missing British. I was jealous. They got really lost and weren’t back for another hour.
That must have been fun. And that’s how it is in Vietnam: it’s not all tour-guides, fanny packs, and tourists. If you explore a little bit you might just find yourself out on your own. You might even find yourself pleasantly lost.
ACTIVELY EXPLORING HIDDEN LANDS