Halong Bay Castaway experience
I decided to start my Southeast Asia trip in Vietnam. I flew into Hanoi and took a shuttle bus to Hanoi Backpackers Hostel. During the free waking tour around the old French Quarter, I was shocked to witness that it was even busier than the obstacle course that is Kuta, Bali. Here, there are more vehicles, mopeds, bicycles and street vendors weaving their way around you as you try to stay alive. Shops selling fake North Face bags, silk clothing, handicrafts and souvenirs. Lots of restaurants, cafés and the local eateries were cooking right on the narrow sidewalk, local patrons sitting around on tiny plastic stools slurping their Pho. My favorite discovery was the iced egg coffee at a café overlooking Ho Kiem Lake and Bun Chá at a local eatery.
One day in the city was enough for me. I was longing for wide open spaces and my dose of daily fresh air. I was still in the mood to celebrate my birthday so I signed up for the Ha Long Bay 3-day Castaway tour that departs in the morning. After what seemed like 5 hours of riding different modes of transportation, I realized it would've been very difficult to get here on my own since most of the locals didn't speak a word of English. Our cruise boat gracefully sailed though little fishing villages set against the stunning backdrop of limestone formations in the bay, a designated a UNESCO a World Heritage Site. There are over 2,000 of them dotted across the northern east coast. I couldn't help but compare it to El Nido and Coron. A legend says that there was once a dragon who hailed from the sky to protect Vietnam against enemies from the north. The dragon then formed into emerald crystals which then turned into limestone formations in Ha Long bay.
"There are only 3 rules in Castaway", our British tour guide declared. "First rule of Castaway is to drink only with the left hand, second rule is to never say the word "mine" and third rule is to never say the word "ten". There are various consequences for those who violate the rules such as downing your entire drink, doing 10 push-ups and doing 10 push-ups while faking an orgasm. They were dead serious about it! I immediately thought to myself, "This could've been fun t-e-n years ago, but man, I'm too old for this sh*t!" I immediately distracted my negative thoughts and focused on the surreal beauty and serenity of this place.
Our booze boat finally pulled into an small island set against a gorgeous background, protected by perfect limestone formations from one end to the other. A fat hairy naked man who looked like the life size version of Super Mario stood right in the center of Castaway with his hands up in the air, yelling from the distance, excited to welcome new arrivals to his self-proclaimed naked colony. I wanted to jump off the boat and swim back to the normal world.
We were welcomed with a big sumptuous buffet lunch of different variands of Asian food then settled in our rustic little huts. In the afternoon, we cruised around Ha Long Bay while partying in true Castaway style. Shotguns of of bia (beer), loud blasting music and lots of good company. Most of them in their early twenties and traveling the the Banana Pancake Trail as well so everyone had amazing stories to tell. At sunset, we all jumped off the boat together, floated around in the emerald waters and swam to a nearby island. I stood there frozen in awe of my surroundings, when a guy took notice and said in his American accent "You're in your element, aren't you?"
Feeling right in my comfort zone, I started doing some yoga, practicing headstands on the shore and within a minute, all these tipsy people started following my moves, begging for a lesson. As a yoga teacher, I couldn't help but lead them into a few proper sun salutations. Lots of laughter, painful screams, ooohs and ouches followed. That made my day. THIS is why teach yoga!
The next day, some people did tubing (ala Flying Fish) while I opted to go rock climbing with some French guys. There were two different climbs, both about 30 meters high, one more challenging than the other. I honestly thought I wouldn't be able to climb much but I took my time and surprisingly made it all the way to the top of both courses. Whenever I'd get stuck, I'd have to reposition my hands and feet according to the instructor's advice from where she was standing down below. There's a certain sense of fulfillment looking at the panoramic views from up there, which makes it so much more beautiful.
At night, all inhibitions broke lose. What happens when you put a bunch of young, wild, free spirits on a secluded paradise island? I'll let you use your imagination for that!
But instead of skinny dipping, making out in the bushes and having threesomes, I ended up bonding with people in different ways. I searched for the bioluminescent planktons along the shoreline with some English lads. Had discussions of a parallel universe and geography lessons with the American guy. A French monsieur got deep into quantum physics and explained why the sky is blue, from a micro perspective. Another lad from Manchester taught me the basics of Taekwondo and let me practice my punches and kicks until I got better. Funny how much I learned from a booze cruise.