Not Like the Postcards

Day 358 – 22 February, 2016

While most parts of Southeast Asia only have a cycle of wet and dry seasons, northern Vietnam embraces a true winter. Maybe it’s not the kind of winter with buckets of snow, but it’s enough to make you question whether to wear shorts or not when going outside and it’s certainly enough to keep you out of the ocean.

Stephie and I arrived in Hanoi, fresh off of the travel high we experienced in Phong Nha and the temperatures were noticeably cooler. Nevertheless, we immediately booked a two day cruise in Ha Long Bay. It’s one of those things that you have to do in Vietnam. Most postcard images you would see of the country are of the limestone peaked islands of Ha Long Bay, jutting out of the crystal clear Gulf of Tonkin. There would be a party atmosphere, shirtless guys, bikini-clad girls swan-diving off of their respective boats. It’s not exactly a Vietnamese cultural experience, yet it is one of those beautiful natural wonders and with a close proximity to Hanoi, you almost certainly have to go.

Our cruise ship had about 16 passengers. None of them were highly sociable so for a good portion of the day, Stephie and I kept mostly to ourselves. Our cabin was not luxurious or spacious, but it was our own space, which is more than I can say about most places we had stayed in the last few weeks. We were on the lower deck with a view of the bay, air conditioning not required in the heavy winter mist.

The bay was packed with other passenger cruise ships as I imagine it always is, but a thick cloud hung over the landscape, partially obscuring our view. The sky remained eerie and colorless; the water was a milky green color that was in no way inviting to dive in. We stopped at a cave called Paradise (see previous post, The Caves – the Vietnamese are not creative in their cave names) and a poster of the bay on a sunnier day was proudly displayed, taunting us. Back on the ship, Stephie and a few other braves souls made the obligatory plunge into the winter sea, but I just couldn’t do it. I much preferred the comfort of my fleece jacket on such a chilly afternoon.

A fancy dinner buffet was served back on the ship and we went to bed hopeful that the next day would bring us some sunshine. Luck was not on our side when we woke up for a kayaking excursion and a light drizzle was falling. No matter. Again, we donned our warm attire and ventured out on the water for a closer view of the islands. I had begun to appreciate the fog for the ethereal quality it was adding to the photos.  

Upon the conclusion of our cruise, we were chilled and tired, but not disappointed. I had loved seeing this special place even though it didn’t look at all like the postcards. And in spite of it, I vowed to return to Ha Long Bay one day in the summer.