The real reason to visit Ha Long Bay….
Ha Long Bay is the leading candidate for Seven New Wonders of the World - an amazing, jaw dropping “have to see it to believe it” kind of place. And I had. Seen it. One year earlier, to be exact, while on a business trip and it amazing and my jaw did drop. I wanted S to experience the same thing and I was counting my blessings that I was going to see it again.
Normally we are on a tight, tight backpacker budget that forces us into fan cooled rooms with questionable stains on the walls, the sounds of the noisy street (or beach) keeping us awake. But for this, our one night (well, my second one night) on Ha Long Bay sleeping in a junk boat, for this we decided to splash out a bit. And what a difference that 20 extra dollars can make! The food on my trip last year had been good - a solid good. But this year…..just look.
The first course of lunch. We knew that things were looking good when this plate of humongous shrimp (I like to call’em shramp) were set down in front of us. We peeled these guys and dipped them (who am I trying to kid? I bathed mine…) in the limey, salty peppery mixture you see at the top of this page. I will let you in on a secret. I like eating squid, octopus and cuttlefish the most when they are purple. I have no idea why. When you place a plate of pale white calamari in front of me my stomach is like “nope” but when I see a piece of tako that is the colour of concord grape juice something in my brain breaks and I become submissive to its charms. Yes - we are still on lunch! You may recall that I am normally a vegetarian (an ass kickin’ food lovin’ one) but on this trip I decided to eat fish because frankly, I think they are dicks. The wonderful staff on this boat made us an entirely pescetarian 5-course meal. This was a lovely fish steak smothered in a sort of Vietnamese warm salsa - tomatoes, onions both spring and white, chili and of course, garlic.
Our boat was much nicer than our course backpacker senses were accustomed to. Every thing was dark wood polished to a high sheen - very posh. We eyed the requisite karaoke machine with suspicion, knowing full well that all of the Da Lat wine and Ha Noi beer was going to loosen us up enough to give it a go. But first, a perfect simple photo of a cold towel in a little laquered basket.
I am really at my very happiest when a meal begins with a vase of jumbo shramp and some carved vegetable flowers. I want every meal to start with these things. Do not be surprised if you come to my house and I present you with a tall refreshing glass of shrimp and a carrot rosette before you’re even all the way in the door. These were in served in a really light broth - mostly clam nectar and garlic and were very delicate and pretty, but….I have had a bad relationship with bivalves since a terrible, horrible, life changing-ly bad bout of food poisoning from mussels a few years ago. Only recently have I been able to even entertain the notion of placing a clam anywhere near my mouth - but these boys made the cut! Cautiously, mind you - I only ate about 5 and even then was terrified to go to sleep, as if they were little clam axe-murderers just waiting for me to relax and close my eyes. For the grand finale: crab shells stuffed with crab cakes. Just when I was feeling a little riced out, a little accosted with lemongrass (I hate the stuff and am pummeled with it daily) they brought these little gems out. Now, I don’t harbour any notions that these are in any way Vietnamese other than the fact that the crab lived here, but let me tell you: I was one pinch of Old Bay Seasoning and a little pot of aioli away from sheer bliss.
I will always remember my first time to Ha Long Bay. I will remember the beauty, the eerie calm, the almost spooky way that the karst rock formations jut out from the murky sea. It was magic in the truest sense of the word.
But my second trip? I will think about those tiny limes, the plump shrimp, the delicate blush of an octopus tentacle, the meatiness of the rich crab meat.
And I’ll look you straight in the eye and tell you that the first time was more meaningful.
You’ll believe me, right?