I was stepping out of the shoes of an expat and into the flip flops of a tourist to tick one special place of my bucket list, Halong Bay, a UNESCO world heritage site. Undoubtedly it’s one of the most recognised spots in Vietnam and Asia, if not the world.
Mystical, beautiful, tranquil.
I was visiting with two family members, who prefer the finer things in life. There’s no shame in admitting such words.
We opted for or a more comfortable, expensive and glutinous tour out of the hundreds travel agents and hotel receptionists flog back in Vietnam’s capital city, Hanoi.
For two days and one night I was living aboard a luxury junk whilst floating across a great expanse of jungle-glazed limestone pillars and islands.
No expenses were spared, but what you pay for is what you get.
A nine-course lunch of locally sourced fresh seafood was presented upon our arrival to the vessel. We slept in a lavishly decorative room. An attentive and genuine team of bell boys (including one Tom Cruise) were at our service, at the click of a finger they’d be topping up a mojito or fetching an extra slice of melon with a smile on their face.
That was when the guilt and embarrassment tricked in a little further. But I made an effort to actually chat with them. Treat them than more than the servant shoes that they were filling since most were as young as me.
Admittedly, paying such a sum of money for the three of us on this mini-cruise slightly dented my pride and generated some shame.
As someone who lives and breathes Ho Chi Minh City every day, I knew how much money we were really paying for this excursion. The young lads tending drinks and sculpting fruit for us were working every day of the week, presumably on a rather pitiful wage (given how every travel agent heavily advised on tipping).
Many Vietnamese can probably only dream of visiting this spectacular place, and it’s never a surprise to hear of those who have never even taken a holiday in their entire working life. It was difficult to swallow, but to savour the moment of being in the majestic Ha Long Bay, it was something I had to accept.
The opportunity of waking in the early hours upon a gently rocking boat, opening the bedside curtains to reveal eerie scenes of misty rocky formations in the first morning light was pretty special. As was the slowly setting sun beyond the line of ancient limestone pillars in the distance as we cruised for an evening beach BBQ. Or just being among the fresh salty air and deep emerald waters of a truly magnificent natural landscape.
There’s nothing wrong with being embarrassed when you’re a tourist and if there’s a silver lining to be had here, it came from Tin, our 30-something Vietnamese tour guide.
“Of course I love my job.” he shrugged his shoulders and raised his arms as we stood out on the deck. “Just take a look at the view that my office has.”
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Vitamin C tablets are not lang thang, and I didn't replace them when they ran out. 70,000 VND a tube was too much to justify in my post-employment life.
Shots of some alcohol and pieces of jackfruit with construction workers under a bridge is lang tang. Later someone said that in Vietnam you shouldn't accept food from strangers, which makes sense, but those few minutes squatting with some old men, using my little Vietnamese, and accepting their street-side hospitality, were the closest I ever got to actually being a wanderer in Ho Chi Minh City.
Sitting in coffee shops late morning to early evening, musing in front of my laptop, is OK. But it's better, and cheaper, to buy street coffee for 10,000 and just work in my apartment--though this is less social and involves less wandering.
20,000 for com tam and making the chicken, rice, and watery soup last all day is the cheapest way to eat, though the occasional avocado smoothie for 25,000 is a necessary concession to health.
Visits to the chiropractor at 1,000,000 VND are the opposite of lang thang, but the pain down my arm could have been a pinched nerve. An hour of getting kneaded and cracked didn't help though, and the cut I got on a locker there still wasn't healing after a week.
Asian oil is a 4,000 a bottle at the pharmacy and hand massages were free from someone who cared. I imagined they were lang thang, and they felt amazing, but weren't doing anything for the little bumps--not quite acne--popping up on my neck.
Whole grains, green vegetables, and vitamin C do not feature in the lang thang diet, but several sites say they help with these symptoms.
Scurvy results in a deficiency of these things, and explained everything. Evidently, it's a risk of going lang thang.