Being told where to go, what to look at, when and what to eat, and being ushered around with a bunch of interminably obnoxious other tourists as a public spectacle is not our idea of a good time. We will not be herded.
Having said that, there are several instances when organized tours might make sense:
- When the intended destination presents significant logistical challenges that the use of privately arranged transportation can solve,
- When the site to be visited contains esoteric cultural information that would be difficult to decipher without a knowledgable guide, and/or
- When a guide is legally required.
For us, Bai Tu Long Bay fell into the first category. We had read online that the journey there from Hanoi requires several transfers, and the relatively undeveloped tourist infrastructure exacts a financial toll on a cornered market. We only had two days before we wanted to head into the north country, and we just didn’t have the patience to hack our way through the DIY process for a two-day boat ride.
We did a little research on tour operators in Hanoi (there are about five on every block in the Old Quarter), and settled on Ethnic Travel for their focus on cooperation with local residents and use of local resources. They picked us up from the Hilton (more on that luxury in a following post) at 8am, and after some shuffling and other pickups along the way, our group was comprised of us, a Dutch couple, an older French couple, a single middle-aged German man, and the only other American couple we met in Vietnam.
It’s always interesting to me how quickly groups of people divide themselves. Almost immediately, Ben and I were lumped in with the German and the more reserved of our two guides, Dat, as the quiet/antisocial/boring group. The Americans, who talked incessantly but always managed to avoid discussing their employment with the U.S. military, co-opted the more gregarious guide, Sonny, to lead the rest of the tour participants as the fun/social/talkative group.
I didn’t mind. I’m an introvert, and I really don’t want to talk that much. I mostly wanted to sit quietly on the deck of the boat with my feet danlging over the turquoise water and watch the monstrous ghost-ship rocks emerge from the mist as we passed by them. Thankfully, there was plenty of time for that.
Bai Tu Long Bay is a relatively undeveloped site compared to its famous cousin to the south, Halong Bay. Halong Bay is one of the top tourist attractions in Vietnam, attracting over five million visitors every year. The result is, of course, hordes of tourists crowded onto thousands of boats that swarm the scenic waters every day. All those boats pollute the water, tourists throw their trash overboard indescriminately, and soon enough the UNESCO World Heritage Site is a filthy circus. We were warned to avoid it, but the otherworldly karst formations were still a draw for a couple of rock fiends.
So we traded some degree of scenery for quietude. Bai Tu Long doesn’t possess quite the same number nor density of large karst islands, but its waters are still turquoise and populated primarily with fishing boats, small oyster farms, and huge brown jellyfish. In fact, we didn’t see another tourist vessel at all during our two days on the water.
And the scenery is indeed breathtaking. My photos don’t do it justice; you can’t see the color of the water, and the mist isn’t heavy enough to translate well on film. But trust me — it’s gorgeous.
The islands rise abruptly out of the water like enormous karst pirate ships, often draped with verdant tropical flora. Jagged stone roots reach down into the sea, covered in mollusks and crabs and barnacles. These monolithic formations stretch out across the water as far as you can imagine, hiding innumerable sheltered coves and lost beaches.
Our boat (called a “junk”) took a circuitous route to the outermost island, stopping for a kayak excursion (marked, of course, by marching orders from our guides: “Now time for kayaking!”) at an oyster farm and a quick swim for Ben before jellyfish chased him out of the water.
We all spent the night in a lodge on Dao Ba Mun island after yet another delicious but too-plentiful meal and a few shots of local rice liquor. (Why do tour operators always assume we want to eat 3,000 calories per meal, anyway?) The Dutch woman got violently ill, and I could hear her retching across the hall. Earplugs, mosquito net, Advil PM, and sleepy time.
The next morning we rode bicycles along the length of the rural island, water buffaloes grazing in fields with egrets on their broad backs, and worm harvesters in concial hats plumbing the tidal flats for pricey delicacies. We stopped at a deserted beach that could easily have been in my native Oregon: brown/grey sand bumpered by rocky tidepools and evergreen trees, low clouds pushing mist down against the cold Pacific.
It’s amazing to me that the more one travels, the more similarities assert themselves over differences.
Our junk transported us back to port the next day, meandering a new route through the islands. Ben and I sat quietly on the bow, our feet dangling, sometimes reading a book or taking photos, but mostly just enjoying the cool sea air on our faces after the heat of the Philippines the week before.
Something about the sea is so calming, so rejuvenating. Something about its immensity, its immutable power, its steady ebb and flow… even though my heart lives in the mountains, the sea still speaks to me. And perhaps for that reason, we often find ourselves on (or under) the sea during our adventures abroad.
The tour van wisked us back to Hanoi (a five-hour drive) before dinner time. From seafaring serenity to bustling city. But the shock was not too jarring, as we knew we’d be off first thing in the morning for the rugged northern frontier.
And, submitting to being herded produced another tangible benefit: our quiet group guide, Dat, called his friend in Ha Giang, and asked her to help us when we arrived in the north the following day. This contact would prove incredibly valuable for the best part of our trip. More on that amazing journey in the next post!
Have you ever taken an organized tour? What was your experience?