Adventures in Asia 2008

my travels through India, Nepal, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan.

Firmly on the Tourist Trail

Posted by maudholma on 22 May 2008

By the time we arrived in Hanoi, comparing Southeast Asia itineraries with other travelers was making me feel like a broken record. There are only so many times you can talk about which countries you’ve already been to and where you’re going next before you start to have a speech memorized. “The food in Thailand was incredible. Laos was beautiful. Cambodia was hot.” And Vietnam is touristy. We’ve bumped into the same Argentinian couple in most of the cities we’ve visited here and as amusing as it is, it’s made me feel a bit like a cow being herded from the south of the country up to the north with everyone else currently traveling in Vietnam. That is, until we spent the past 3 days in Halong Bay and the term “touristic” took on a whole new meaning…

Most people visit the thousands of islands and limestone cliffs that make up Halong Bay on organized tours from Hanoi. We arrived at the port along with a few dozen other minibuses dropping people off and picking others up. It got a little better when we got onto our boat with the 12 other people in our group; at least we no longer looked like war evacuees standing around with our backpacks, waiting in one place, then another, then a third etc. It was difficult to appreciate the stunning scenery at times when everything we did was designed to remind us that we were tourists and that what we were experiencing was nothing close to genuine or authentic. We visited a cave which would’ve been beautiful but for the fact that the rock formations were highlighted by neon lights and the camera flashes of the 50 other people visiting the cave at the same time as us, walking in an ordered line along the paved path from one end of the cave to the other. We stopped at a small floating village to go kayaking and were immediately accosted by women trying to sell us Oreos, Pringles, Coke, beer, and cigarettes. We were herded from bus to boat to pier to bus to hotel like cattle at a livestock market a few times each day.

Considering how touristic the tour was, it’s surprising how disorganized the whole experience actually was. We rarely knew what we were going to do each day, which was probably for the best since most people who were given itineraries were disappointed that reality was nothing like what they had been promised. Each time we moved from bus to boat or vice versa the people in our group changed, the guides apparently exchanging people at random. This was especially unfair since people who had paid $40 and those shelling out $80 for a superior or VIP trip had exactly the same standard of accommodation and transportation. And since no one told us what we needed to wear, there were people doing the trek to the top of a mountain in Cat Ba National Park in flip flops. I wore sneakers and still felt like I was tempting fate when I was slipping around on the muddy paths or clinging onto jagged rocks, branches, and anything else that I could get my hands on while trying not to sprain my ankle or break my neck the last 100 m up to the top. There were, of course, no railings or anything which would have broken a fall…

If it hadn’t been for the breathtaking nature of Halong Bay, which was the overwhelming highlight of the past 3 days and made the whole experience worth it, I would be leaving Southeast Asia disappointed and with a bitter taste in my mouth. Instead, I’m glad for the past 2 months or so here but also giddy with excitement about getting on a plane tonight and flying to Manila. Bring on deserted beaches and crystal clear waters – I’m badly in need of some R&R!

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