We arrived to our destination of Halong Bay at 8:30 a.m. amazingly well rested. We had nothing to do but sleep (and sweat) on the train the night before and the 3 hour pre-dawn bus ride, so we were ready to dive into breakfast.
God smiled upon us and our rooms were available for us shortly after we stuffed our faces. Then came the sweetest moment of my life up to this point: A SHOWER. I am not a long shower taker but I must have scrubbed myself from head to toe for 20 straight minutes. I learned an interesting thing about how human skin works: when you mix sunblock and sweat with dirt and dust it turns into an invisible layer of mud, so when you scratch the skin your fingernails get filled with mud. My God that shower felt glorious. I will never forget it.
We had a few hours of down time before our highlight adventure of the day: A boat trip through Halong Bay. If you don't know what Halong Bay is or looks like, Google it. It's absolutely breathtaking. There are thousands and thousands of little islands within 6 kilometers of the coast and they are a crazy sight to see. The islands are uninhabited by people, and are so tall and jungle-y that humans probably couldn't walk through them if they wanted to.
Our tour included this trip on the "junk boat" (funny name, I don't know where it comes from) along with a seafood lunch on board. Usually the food on this kind of floating tourist trap is serious crap and likely to give you dysentery, but holy man was this food good! We had several courses of seafood, including freshly cooked, unpeeled shrimp, fried calamari and these awesome different-kinds-of-seafood-stuffed crabs. I was wildly impressed.
Selling stuff to tourists is a way of life as we've learned, but while on the junk boat we witnessed something beyond our wildest hawking imaginations. A small boat pulled right up next to our much larger boat, and a young girl (I'd say about 8) jumped from that boat onto ours with a bunch of fruit that she was trying to sell us through the window - in the rain! She was really nimble on her feet so I bet she does that jump 100 times a day. Craziness!
A few hours into our boat journey we stopped at an island that had a cave, where we got off the boat and walked through the stalagmites and stalactites. They had jazzed it up with neon lights, which really robbed the place of any authentication, but it was really cool to see what nature had done all by itself. Had it not been filled with tourists and neon lights it would have been reminded of the movie The Descent, where cave monsters pick off a group of cave explorers by eating them.
We got back on land about 4 p.m. and quickly realized that the only thing to do in the town of Halong Bay is see the islands. We don't have a travelers Bible, a.k.a. Lonely Planet guide, but the books other people brought made it clear that Halong Bay is not a place to spend much time in. See the islands, then move on. So we bathed in the glory of the A/C until we met some friends on their balcony (lucky ducks, we didn't get a balcony) for a few drinks before dinner.
The restaurant we went to, like many other restaurants in town, had their available seafood on display, right out on the sidewalk. I was sad to see the fish and crabs awaiting their deaths in small aquariums, but if they didn't want to die they shouldn't have been born so delicious.
Marv was a culinary adventurer and tried sea mantis, which we both had never heard of before. He even watched the little fellas get scooped out of the aquarium and hauled back to the kitchen. Here's what they looked like alive:
And a short time later, not so alive:
He said it was like a big shrimp, with a lot less meat and taste. Boo for the most expensive thing on the menu not equalling a lot of yummy food.
I was ready for home after dinner so I went back while Marv and a few others hit up a bona fide locals club, called Club 18. As soon as they walked in Marv & Co. were surrounded by locals who wanted to talk to and dance with them. The people are so friendly here! Someone wrote on their cell phone "Welcome to Halong Bay, you are my friend" (aww!) and Marv even got a phone number - from a guy.