I spent a good four weeks researching which mini cruise company to go with for our Ha Long Bay (the famous UNESCO World Heritage site in northern Vietnam that translates as “descending dragon”) excursion. I knew I wanted us to do an overnight boat given that the distance is quite far between Hanoi and Ha Long Bay (about four hours by car). But there were so many options — so many tour groups with high ratings, so many inclusions/exclusions, four different routes (two main Ha Long Bay routes, plus two slightly off-the-beaten path routes, and different sights to see on different routes. I ultimately decided on a cruise that would take us through Bai Tu Long Bay (it translates to “the dragon parts from the offspring”), a route that is a bit further out that, because it’s a newer approved route by the Vietnamese government, is far less touched and is known for stiller waters. The limestone island and rock formations are still the same, but it given it’s less touched, will be far less polluted and be more scenic. I read a few too many reviews saying the first two approved main boat routes had a lot of trash and oil in the waters, and I didn’t really want to pay money to see that. I was forgoing the opportunity on one of these routes to climb one of the mountains on the island to get a near-aerial view of Ha Long Bay, which I really wanted to see and do, but meh. The same route probably got the most reviewers discussing how filled with rubbish that island and its surrounding waters it was. I will see what I see, and I know what I will see. I don’t need a photo of the top view to remember this.
And as soon as we arrived at the dock, it already looked stunning. Lots of haters on travel sites like TripAdvisor shat all over Ha Long Bay, saying it’s gross, polluted, not anything like the photos you see online or in travel magazines. But along the route we took in Bai Tu Long Bay, even on a crisp 50s F day with a light wind, it was spectacular to see endless little limestone islands in all their various colors, with different types of trees and shrubbery adorning them. Caves that came about naturally live on some of these islands, and kayaking through it all today seemed quite surreal. The farther we sailed, the more we saw of these endless limestone islands. They just kept coming and coming; it’s as though there was no end to them.
As we sailed and kayaked this afternoon, I thought about my mom and Ed. My mom, more or less, has had a slight desire to travel, but it’s been pretty much squashed by my dad, who would far prefer to see anything via YouTube than actually travel and go see it himself in real life. But one area of the world she has absolutely zero desire to see again, sadly, is Vietnam, her home country. Too many bad memories of the war, the pain of losing her mother and never seeing her before she died in 1984, and the constant nagging of relatives still there for more money, have scarred her. She feels like she’s failed her family there in some ways (“no amount of money is enough”), and she doesn’t want to deal with them again. She could never go to Vietnam and not go see them the way I have. But Bai Tu Long Bay’s beauty would most certainly be appreciated by my mother. I wish she could see this for herself, but only photos will suffice.
Ed had no desire to come to Vietnam in 2008. When asked and asked again, he insisted he did not want to come. In confidence to me, he said, “I don’t want to see that disgusting country. That country messed up our mother. I don’t know what they did to her, but they screwed her up. Whatever is there is probably awful and I don’t want to see what ruined her.” I didn’t know what to say. So I said nothing in response, and said I’d show him photos when I got back. But after seeing Saigon again, and now Hanoi and Ha Long Bay, I also think my brother would be able to appreciate this country, if not just for its food, but also for the promise it has for a brighter future with its strides in development and in education. Going through the islands today made me think about him and all the things I’ve seen and will continue to see that he will never have the chance to. It just made me so sad and wistful. Maybe he didn’t have the desire to see Vietnam in 2008, but today, on the last day of 2018, I know for sure that he’d enjoy this.