Travel Story: A 'Junk' Trip in Vietnam

my introspective boat tour of Halong Bay

JoAnna Haugen, illustrated by Erik Christenson

I hunkered in the doorway of an office building as gray clouds moved in, threatening to break open above me. Piles of luggage were stacked in the doorway, but I held tightly to my backpack. As a solo traveler making my way through Vietnam, I had yet to let someone else touch my bag, the essence of my livelihood halfway around the world. 

“I am Ahn.” A short man holding a clipboard bowed and smiled, showing a full mouth of teeth. “What is your name?”

“I’m JoAnna,” I said, and received the quizzical look I’d gotten since arriving in Vietnam. “You can call me Jo.” I pointed to my name on his list. He checked it off and immediately moved on to the next person.

Earlier that morning I had taken a hired car from Hanoi to the coast of Vietnam. This part of the country, known as Halong Bay, was rumored to be tacky and touristy, so I opted instead to head straight for the water. In fact, most travelers come to Halong Bay for one thing: To tour the bay by junk. These pirate-looking ships generally hold anywhere from a single couple to several dozen people, depending on the boat and tour operator. The company I chose fell somewhere between the two with seven passengers and a small crew. 

Of the nearly 2,000 islands in Halong Bay, only about 300 of them have names. These sheer-faced rocks, covered with luscious trees and foliage, rise out of nowhere in the sea. Apparently birds, snakes, and monkeys live on them, but I can’t imagine that much else does.

As the junk floated among the islands, I sat on the top deck, my legs dangling over the edge of the boat, watching the world recede behind us. The warm, humid air sat heavy on my shoulders, and the dark green of the islands reflected onto the rough surface of the water despite the overcast sky. I felt like we were cruising through a waterlogged version of Jurassic Park.

We piled into the day cruiser that was pulled alongside the junket. One of the boat hands steered the craft toward Công Đâm. The village “chief” greeted us, poured lukewarm tea into a set of chipped mugs and answered our questions about his home. This, the second largest fishing village in the bay, is only inhabited by 163 people, many of whom have never been to the mainland (particularly the women and children). A typhoon had torn through recently and the school was completely destroyed, but there didn’t seem to be any rush to rebuild it. Such a shame, I thought, that these children learn to swim and paddle a boat before they learn to read or write. 

As we floated in boats paddled by women in the village, I watched daily life on the water. Dogs lounged on the porches; wet clothes hung from the eves above makeshift porches that surrounded colorful homes sitting atop big plastic barrels.

Despite rain, we set out in kayaks the next morning. I’d been kayaking in calm, clear waters before, but the rough conditions and inclement weather made the paddling tough, despite the fact that I was sharing a boat with Ahn, our guide, who kayaked several times a week.

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