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Day 84 – Believe The Hype? (Halong Bay, Surprise Cave)

May 26, 2010

Dateline: Halong Bay, Vietnam – Wednesday, May 26, 2010

As I mentioned yesterday, Michelle, Ruben, and I booked a tour with Vega Travel to Halong Bay. This was only after extensive internet research (read: reading horror stories about tours that only made things more confusing) and Michelle grilling the hell out of the guy at the Vega office. She asked about everything short of how thick the mattresses were. She was much more thorough than I’d have been.

Which, actually, is a good thing considering how many of these trips seem to end poorly. Today was Day 1 of our three-day/two-night excursion. We left early on a mini-bus to the Halong City port. After an obligatory rest stop at a souvenir shop/restaurant we arrived at our destination.

We were joined by Claire and Chris, a Brit couple on holiday; a Spanish couple; a female Aussie paramedic; a younger British pair on an extended trip where, as it later became apparent, they were spending someone else’s money; and a German couple. Just as promised, there were twelve people. Vega delivered on its first promise. Definitely a good sign.

When we boarded the boat we found a nice dining room with proper tablecloths and heavy silverware. Below the main deck, I found one of the best rooms I had on this trip so far. The bathroom was, by far, the best I’d had in months and not just because it had a sink. The toilet was shiny porcelain and there was a huge rain-type showerhead coming out of the wall.

I’m going to go light on the words these next couple of days and let the pictures do most of the talking. To add some context, our itinerary today included a visit to Hang Sung Sot or “Surprise Cave”, a kayak trip through an island cave passage into a lagoon in the middle of an island, a swim, and lots of eating.

Halong Bay itself is like the Grand Canyon or Dodger Stadium. I remember that, when I was a kid, I’d watch Dodger games on TV or listen to Vin Scully, Ross Porter, and Don Drysdale on the radio broadcasts. TV gave me fleeting images of what the stadium looked like. Vin and the boys let me fill in the blanks with their descriptions and accounts of the game. I could hear the sounds of the crowd, the ice cream vendors, and the crack of the bat. By the time I went to my first Dodger game, I figured I knew what sitting in a seat would be like.

I was wrong. When I walked through the tunnel to our upper deck seats, I remember thinking the field looked a lot closer than it looked on TV. The colors seemed more vivid. I felt like I could pick out individual blades of grass and grains of red infield dirt. I’d spent years imagining the stadium, seeing it in pictures, hyping it up in my head and yet, when I saw it for the first time, it still wowed me.

That, my friends, is Halong Bay. I’d seen Railay in Thailand and figured I knew what I was in for. I’d heard the hype and thought I’d be impervious. When I got there, it was like walking through that opening in Dodger Stadium all over again. I caught myself just shaking my head and silently mouthing the word, “Wow.”

The rock formations jut out of the water, just like in Railay, but here there aren’t just a few, there seem to be thousands. For as far as the eye can see, stone stabs out of the water. I felt like Aragorn at Helm’s Deep, staring out the sea of besieging orcs. I knew the landscape must end, but I just couldn’t see where. We’d round one island and off in the distance, in haze, you could see layer upon layer of more.

If you get a chance, you should visit this place. It’s already well-touristed, but that’s for a reason. Get here before it gets even more crowded. It’s well worth the trip.

GALLERY: Click through to today’s gallery to see pictures of Mervyn under and overexposed, squinting into the camera with a terrible non-haircut, and lots of bonus pictures of cave and bay stuff.

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