While I've now spent plenty of American holidays away from the rituals of home, I have been lucky to have some wonderful, and sometimes very appropriate stand-ins while abroad. Months after enjoying steaks with a pair of Americans in Argentina for Thanksgiving, I found myself on a beach for America's Independence Day - July 4 - enjoying a barbeque with, ironically, a handful of friends from England. And while I didn't experience any fireworks, I did have a somewhat fearful display of light and sound from a massive thunderstorm that evening.
Our minibus arrived early in the morning of July 3, right on time, and Adam, Lydia, Kate, and I piled in, happy to see a younger set of faces despite having avoided the party cruise! The ride was long but not bad, with one extended stop at a store that was clearly meant for us to purchase trinkets, though it wasn't bad for loading up on snacks. We finally arrived at Halong Bay at a massive pier area, groups packed into the storefront awaiting their departures, others lounging around clearly battling hangovers from a couple of nights on a booze cruise and waiting on buses to take them back to the city. Our guide, Tiger, quickly whisked us out to the docks, passing massive luxury ships and small boats that looked like they were crumbling, saying silent prayers as we passed that none of those would be our boat! While the outside of ours could certainly use some work, I think we were all pleasantly surprised at how nice and comfortable it was on the inside, the rooms even borderline luxurious. We were immediately served a tasty lunch, plates and plates loaded full of food served to us in swift succession as we slowly made our way out in the water.
Our first stop was a large cave with a steady stream of tourists coming in and out. Inside was indeed spectacular, but there was something about the path, the colored lighting, that just made it seem a bit… fake. I'm sure most of the structure was naturally occurring, but sometimes it's hard to imagine the natural beauty through pink and purple spotlights!
Back on the boat, we went straight to the roof to relax on the comfortable lounge chairs, soaking in our gorgeous surroundings - the enormous limestone rocks covered in greenery jutting out of the surprisingly calm water against a background of blue skies. Soon after we were given an opportunity to kayak from a floating village, smoothly navigating our two-person boats through caves and into alcoves that had been featured in the James Bond movie, "Tomorrow Never Dies". Adam and I were a good team, and we made a second lap around the little loop, having made good time on the first.
Back on the big boat, we continued lounging up top, chatting with our shipmates as we made our way to a little secluded area where we anchored for a while, allowing many members of the group the chance to leap from the roof into the bay. The sun slowly began to set as we relaxed and hung out, and we watched the sky explode with stunning colors as the sun dipped in between two large sections of rocks, resembling the silhouettes of dragons resting atop the water.
Eventually we descended for dinner, where we were shown how to assemble fresh spring rolls and given plenty of other delicious plates of food (although the fact that they didn't provide *any* beverages - including water - and grossly overcharged for water was definitely a sour note). After dinner, we took turns getting cleaned up (and begging the staff to actually turn on the hot water), then relaxing on the rooftop, watching the stars and distant lightning flashes, enjoying the peaceful atmosphere despite the nearby party boats.
The next day was July 4 - Independence Day! - and incredibly ironic that I was spending it in Vietnam with a bunch of Brits. After breakfast, we landed on Cat Ba Island and piled into a cramped minibus for a drive across the island, where we caught another small boat to take us to our accommodations for the next evening. We puttered out past a massive floating village, full of fishing and shrimping boats, then out across the water to Monkey Island.
The little resort looked kind of incredible as we approached from the water. Upon actually entering the property though, we were greeted by a huge group of families, with small kids climbing on the lobby pool table and yelling. Absolutely horrifying. Thankfully they hid from the sun most of the day, leaving the beach all to us. We stashed our bags and were told we could check into our rooms after lunch, giving us nearly two hours to lay on the beach and swim in the ocean, enjoying the rolling waves that were a departure from the placid calm of the previous day.
We broke for lunch - a delicious spread served on the upstairs balcony of the main building - and afterwards were given our keys to our tiny bungalows which were perfectly furnished, both rustic and somewhat luxurious. After getting settled, a few of us set out on a short hike to an overlook point. The trail was very poorly maintained and overgrown, and the path was eroding away in some places. Unfortunately, the viewpoint was similarly overgrown, disappointing after the very sweaty climb, but we were still able to get a decent glimpse of the gorgeous surrounding view. Back on the beach, we stripped down and got back in the water as quickly as possible to cool down, and I spent the next few hours between the beach chair, the ocean, and the upstairs deck, enjoying the sand, the breeze, and the peaceful sound of the waves.
Later that afternoon, Tiger gathered the group together for a short hike over to Monkey Beach. We followed a path of well-marked rocky stairs up and over to the very heavily-populated beach on the other side of the island, full of Asian tourists. We circled around to the back corner of the beach, to a small building and set of trees which were occupied by a large family of monkeys. The patriarch sat brooding on a low trunk looking like the Dude up until he executed a sneak attack on one of the onlooking tourists, ripping a package of biscuits from a shopping bag, tearing them open, and proceeding to eat each and every one. Meanwhile, a baby on a high up branch screamed for attention from pink-faced mom, but attracted the attention of a sibling, who wrestled him out of the tree and onto the ground.
Having had enough of monkeys, we returned to our beach, seeking quiet and a refreshing dip in the ocean, startled to see it once again full of families out for a swim. We went swimming anyway, and after getting enough sun I retreated to the upstairs deck, enjoying the breeze as the sun slowly set. We regrouped later on for dinner, an expansive buffet including spring rolls, salad, soup, buns, and featuring an open grill with chicken, pork, oysters, and squid rings. We devoured multiple plates until we were stuffed silly, and I felt like the barbecue was especially appropriate given the holiday I was missing back home. As other guests drifted off to their rooms, I played cards with some Canadian and Belgian travelers in our larger group, finally turning in myself.
I didn't sleep well that night, as a massive thunderstorm hit our tiny island, with some of the loudest booms of thunder I've heard in my entire life, sounding like bombs ripping apart the air directly overhead. I said a few silent prayers that the rain wouldn't get in our little thatched roof hut, and thankfully, we stayed completely dry. Unfortunately though, around 5 am, our little air conditioning unit decided to start beeping loudly at random intervals, sounding like an alarm, with no way that we could figure out to silence it. Finally it shut off around 7 am, and my own alarm went off only half an hour later. Groggy and grumpy, I stumbled to a thankfully delicious breakfast of eggs and crepes before gathering my things and joining the group to say farewell to our little island.
We boarded a small boat to cross the now choppy water back to Cat Ba Island, where we crammed into a very tiny minibus to cross the island back to our larger boat. As we boarded the bus and our larger boat, we passed huge groups of tourists out for the weekend - I was very thankful we had started our trip on a Thursday instead of a Friday or a Saturday! We enjoyed the upper deck of the boat for a while until a light rain started, sending us downstairs where we later enjoyed a tasty lunch, our final meal of the trip. The rain become much stronger as we gradually made our way towards the pier where we had started, and we waited as long as we could before disembarking in the downpour. After another long wait, we boarded another minibus back to Hanoi, where I would immediately embark for my next adventure: Sapa.