“Do you girls like to have fun?”
This is a loaded, and dangerous question. On the one hand, you could think we’re boring, and are unsure if we enjoy good times. On the other, you could be extending an invitation to trouble. Being the only female Canadians in a mixed bag group of Europeans and fellow North Americans, we took it as a challenge to defend our nations’ ability for fun.
Junk boat in Halong Bay
Originally, our plan was to escape Hanoi’s hustle to enjoy a picturesque (and relaxing) boat ride through the limestone cliffs of Halong Bay. The tour we booked at a neighboring hotel included one night on a house boat (the junk boat tours were more expensive), one overnight on Cat Ba island, and a lot of travel between these two places and Hanoi. What started off as a planned trip to take great photos and catch up on reading ended up being a 72-hour, sleepless, raging good time that has claimed at least 5 years of my life that I will never get back.
If ever you feel the need to prove yourself (and your country!) to some laissez-faire attitude party zombies, be equipped with the following pointers:
Step one: Establish things you have in common
Besides the obvious: “hi, what’s your name”, “where are you from”, and “what brings you to Vietnam”, other popular topics of conversation that will help you make friends could include:
Scary but true, these are very common in Asia. In my week long stopover in Vietnam, I had witnessed two up close, images I’ll never forget. The amount of near-accidents you’ll witness are likely uncountable. We met a solo traveler on our tour who we learned did not begin his Vietnamese journey alone. He and a friend had been traveling south-to-north along Vietnam’s eastern coast by motorbike. His friend lost control of his bike and had to be hospitalized (!!!). He decided to continue on solo, and pick up his friend from the hospital before they had to head home. Yikes.
The price you paid for your trip
There were about ten groups on the tour, and not one of us paid the same price. The Halong Bay cruises are booked through independent agents in Vietnam. Not one agent will offer the same price to two different tourists. It’s the only guarantee in the process. Take the offered price and work it down for as long as you have the patience to do so. As long as you pay a price that is fair and that you feel is worth it, then you did the right thing. Try to ignore the fact that the guy sitting next to you paid 1/3 less than you did for the same tour. Try even harder not to laugh at the guy on your right, who paid twice as much.
You’re going to need something to say to all these people…
This will help you survive the over packed shuttle and bus ride to the northern marina of Bay Chai, the launching point to the Gulf of Tonkin that leads to Halong Bay. You will then be ready for the next step.
Step Two: Be equipped with things to share
Remember, you will be spending at least 14 hours on a boat with your new friends. Why not make it comfortable?
Appropriate seasonal gear
If you’re traveling between January and May, it can be cold in northern Vietnam. 15 degrees celcius in the day, and 10 degrees below that at night. A blanket, gloves, a hat, anything you can spare to a friend who did not pack appropriately for the journey is bound to secure that relationship. On my trip, that friend was me, and I was thrilled and very appreciative of the donations. The other months are HOT! Sun hats and screen are a necessity. An umbrella a true luxury.
Tricks and treats
All meals are provided while on the house boat, but nothing brings people together like good snacks, especially those that remind you of home. This is also the time to pull out those general interest / fashion / celebrity gossip magazines that you have in your bag and start passing them around. Had the foresight to bring Chinese checkers, dominoes or a deck of cards? You might just become the prom queen of your boat.
If you have an entertaining talent (verify with your friends ahead of time to make sure you have not confused “entertaining” with “annoying”) then you are guaranteed to be king of the pride.
I’ll trade you one beer for a new card game lesson
Step Three: Rock the boat
I mean this quite literally. You’re going to need to combine all the skills you developed in steps one and two to carry this out effectively.
- First, make sure you use your negotiation skills (and lessons learned from when you booked your trip) to procure some Vietnamese whiskey and other related vices. Although the boat cruises along the bay in the day, it remains anchored in the evening and at night. A great photo op is of the limestone structures at sunset. This gives the floating market vendors a chance to approach the boat offering their goods in a singsong, “buy something” beckoning call. This is also the time to load up on snacks for the night.
- The gear you packed should also include mini speakers for your mp3 player and extra batteries to keep the music going all night. The roof of the houseboat is an excellent location for a dance party, especially when Vietnamese whiskey is involved: a little liquid motivation is all you need to help you feel cool when you really feel awkward.
- At night it gets cold, no matter what month you travel to northern Vietnam, so layer up! That whiskey I was talking about earlier will make you feel warmer than you really are. If you are to survive the next session “how to make friends on Cat Ba island” (coming up in the next article), you’re going to need to not get sick.