Our hosts poured us all another tipple of rice wine, prompted us to hold our shot glasses high in the air, and counted down to take the shot.
The wine slipped down my throat, burning my insides along the way, and when I slammed the glass upside down on the wooden floorboards, the room swayed.
Literally: it swayed.
Because we were dining in a fisherman’s hut moored to one of the limestone pinnacles that define the Ha Long Bay region.
This wasn’t what I had dreamed of when I chartered a boat with 3 other travel friends to cruise around Lan Ha Bay overnight with Asia Outdoors.
But I certainly wasn’t complaining. No plush ocean liner could have beaten this experience.
We had a big wooden boat all to ourselves, with a cabin filled with tables and chairs and a roof decked out with cushions for us to sit back and enjoy the view.
And it was to be a mighty one.
Lan Ha Bay cruise
Lan Ha Bay might take second place to Ha Long Bay, but that doesn’t make it any less beautiful; just more down-to-earth.
It doesn’t get the crowds Halong Bay attracts – and it’s got something else pretty special:
As our little fishing boat chugged out of Cat Ba Island‘s main port, we cruised past a huge floating village. It was wedged between karst mountains and seemed to stretch on forever, a city of ramshackle bungalows floating on water.
Each property boasted a tiny square green and orange house, a patchwork of fishing nets in the water, and a guard dog to yap at us as we passed.
Beyond the village was the immensity of Lan Ha Bay; the aquamarine blue and green of karst cliffs, a scattering of small fishing settlements – a house or two at most – and a dusky orange sky reflected in opaque water.
We docked at one of those fishing settlements. Inside the rudimentary home was a local family and a touring business group with Vietnamese and one lone Japanese man.
One of the locals was peeling back the floorboards in his home. Below were the murky waters of the bay.
He dangled a limp fish over the water, then hastily dropped it in…
… And a humongous monster fish rose to snatch its dinner.
It was a ‘lucky fish’, the family’s pet.
The fishing family served us dinner. I sat outside with my long-time travel friend and Machu Picchu Jungle Trek companion Silvana to watch the sun set. Dusk painted deep pastel pink and purple streaks across the sky.
The family and boat crew were assembled on floor mats, a feast spread out before them. I watched them pour an amber liquid from a jar filled with what looked like roots into cups.
They saw my curiosity and beckoned me over.
And THAT was when the true experience started.
The family handed us bowls of prawns and made sure our shot glasses stayed full. I made sure to keep my glass half full to avoid unending top-ups.
These Vietnamese, at first so quiet, polite and shy, were transformed into a raucous, rowdy bunch looking for any excuse to cheer loudly.
… Which is probably why they brought out the karaoke.
It doesn’t matter where you are in Vietnam; even on a fishing settlement in the middle of Lan Ha Bay, the Vietnamese love their karaoke.
Raw-voiced and ready for bed, we boarded our boat. A wind swept through the bay and the rains set in. The crew waited for the storm to calm before we chugged into the middle of the bay and anchored for night.
Then they invited us to swim.
It was midnight. We could only see the shadows of the mountains around us.
It was raining still. The temperature had cooled substantially.
Lightening scarred the sky.
But what the heck. I bombed in.
Wet and exhausted, we bunkered down to endure a storm-tossed, broken sleep.
At dawn, we crawled to the roof deck to watch Lan Ha Bay pass by.
It was beautiful.
Read Ha Long Bay Part 1: Motorbiking Adventures.
In the meantime, check out some of my other Vietnamese adventures: