A Dutch couple, two Pakistani journalists, five British teenagers, a beautiful Portuguese traveller and a Vietnamese tour operator set out to explore the caves of Ha Long Bay. Once they’ve climbed into a subterranean dreamscape of stalagmites and stalactites, there is an earthquake and the cave begins to collapse, threatening to bury them alive. They have to get over their differences and work together to survive. In another scenario, the same people are lounging on a boat. The beautiful, bitchy girl is lying by the edge, with her arm extending into the water when SPLASH, something rises out of the murky depths and drags her in before eating her whole. These are some of the potential summer blockbusters I concocted while sailing up Ha Long Bay in Northeast Vietnam, a UNESCO World Heritage site consisting of thousands of steep, forested cliffs and islands rising out of a jade green sea. It’s beautiful no doubt, but it’s like dating for looks rather than personality. It gets dull real fast.
Thankfully, the boat oozed personality. The traditional Indochinese wooden boats that dart around these waters with their high sterns and square sails are known as junks. The term would prove entirely appropriate for our vessel, the Cong Nhia. After kicking open the door (the wood of which had swollen and warped in the sea air), we found a cabin the size of a bathroom and a bathroom the size of a shower cubicle. The cabin’s solitary bulb didn’t cast enough light to read by, which turned out to be a blessing, since it also meant one was spared a close examination of the bed sheets. There was no choice but to socialise with the other passengers, a gaggle of cheerful British gap year students and three travellers.
While I’m all for seeing the world, it must be said that I loathe professional travellers. You know who I mean, Europe’s unwashed masses that set out to see the ‘real’ Vietnam/India/Brazil. You find them at the seediest dives in town, trying earnestly to following local customs, eating food that beggars would pass up, bathing sporadically at best – imagining they’re enjoying the ‘real’ city. They wouldn’t dare visit Hanoi’s exquisite French colonial opera house, despite the fact that actual Vietnamese people sometimes do that too. Other than the condescending assumption that one has to live like a pig in order to understand the third world, I hate the falseness of the whole exercise. European travellers only speak to other travellers, they sleep rough but have $1,200 medical insurance. They want the appearance of hardship with none of the consequences.
The insights of the travellers on our boat were limited to calling places 'beautiful' or 'commercial' and referring to entire populations as ‘nice’ or ‘very nice’ (apparently the Burmese are all lovely, quick, someone tell the United Nations). Travellers aren’t interested in reality, they don’t travel to experience countries as locals do, they come for a quick fix of Poverty: The Theme Park and then leave satisfied that it’s lived down to their expectations.
For The Herald, June 2010