“IT’S KARAOKE TIME!!”
The waiter from our boat, who up until now has been an exemplar of good service and professionalism, has started up the karaoke machine and brought out the mics.
Those of us sitting outside look in at the wild transformation of the dining hall. Soon we hear the loud, synthesizer beats of a Vietnamese pop song. The waiter, a perpetually smiling boy with a shag cut and skinny jeans, grabs a mic and bellows an off-key rendition of the song.
Maybe it’s the shock of the embarrassing scene in front of me, or the wine kicking in, but suddenly, I also want to karaoke it up.
“C’mon, someone sing with me! I don’t want to go up there alone!” I whine.
“I’ll sing something with you,” a friendly Australian offers. “What did you have in mind?”
We peruse the seriously lacking English section of the song catalogue and finally settle on “Brown-Eyed Girl.”
Our fellow boaters applaud loudly as we take the stage – a spot in front of the bar with carpeting that may once have been a colour other than beer-stain brown.
The cheesy beats of the karaoke version of Van Morrison begins, and my Aussie companion starts us off. He sings the first verse in perfect pitch, his smooth vocals coming out clearly through the mic.
“I didn’t know I was with a professional,” I joke. “Do you sing for a living?”
That’s great. I decide to do karaoke in front of our entire boat, and our duo is made up of tone-deaf, musically-challenged me and the Australian Bryan Adams.
Ashleigh and I are on one of the many Halong Bay boats with a small group of other travelers eager to explore the region. We took a packed minibus from Hanoi and endured the antics of an overzealous tour guide for four hours. In that time, he broke down the entire history of Vietnam over a squeaky mic prone to fits of explosive, deafening crackles. He was helpful enough to include the number of deaths by traffic accidents in his recitation, stated while we were in a claustrophobia-inducing speeding minivan with no seatbelts.
Amazingly, we make it alive to the pier and are introduced to our boat and our group. It is then that we start the journey towards the famed UNESCO heritage site, one of the main reasons people visit Vietnam. It has rained all day, leaving a chill-inducing mist over the waters. When we finally see the karst cliffs, they appear suddenly out of the fog, surprising us with their dramatic beauty.
I am a little disappointed that nobody else wants to go to the bow of the ship, do the Titanic pose, and yell, “Iceberg! Straight ahead!” Because what the hell is the point of being on a giant boat if you can’t make an outdated cultural reference to a movie about a giant boat?
We arrive at the Hang Sung Sot (Surprising Cave), an enormous limestone cave that is one of the world’s biggest. There are already a million people going in, and we follow the long line of cave gawkers. Our guide offers us valuable information on the history of the cave’s formation, and also points out the stalactites “unique” shape.
“You see that hanging stalactite there? What does it remind you of? Yes, a penis, ha ha!”
As we get to the top access point, a beautiful view of Halong Bay comes into sight – as do a large pack of twenty-something Brits who have just come off of the booze cruise boat.
“I’ll race you to the top!”
“You’re too drunk to race!”
“No way, man! I had way less shots than you!”
“When we get through this cave, we’re playing another round of King’s Cup!!!”
Great. It’s the British cast of 21 & Over, coming to the most beautiful place on Earth to ruin whatever moment of spiritual and emotional clarity I was just experiencing.
I get my obligatory shots of the Bay and quickly proceed down the stairs, careful not to bump into the obnoxiously loud booze cruisers, lest they drunkenly fall over the railing and I land myself in a Vietnamese prison.
After a short boat ride, we arrive at a small cove for some kayaking. Ashleigh and I drop our gear on the dock and pick a kayak – an unstable, bright orange plastic thing that definitely looks safe enough to hold two large Westerners. The water is cool and refreshing, but the day isn’t hot enough to enjoy an accidental swim, so we’re careful not to tip the boat.
We paddle slowly and glide under a tunnel. We then find ourselves in one of the most stunning coves I have ever seen – turquoise waters lap against the dark brown rock of the karst limestone structures that surround us. The place is silent except for the faraway sounds of birds calling and paddles hitting the water.
Then, a team of kayakers starts singing:
“Hakuna Matata… what a wonderful phrase!”
Their voices echo off the walls of the cove, filling the environment with music and making us nostalgic for the days when JTT played a young talking lion cub, warthogs and meerkats could sing, and everything was right with the world.
At first, I’m annoyed with the break in silence, disrupting the peaceful mood. However, I soon chime in.
“It means no worries… for the rest of your daaaays!”
I am no more able to resist a Disney sing-along than Michael Bay is able to resist blowing up an entire city on film.
It’s after dinner. Most of us are sitting outside the dining hall, enjoying the crisp night air and the lights of the boats flickering on the black water.
My post-dinner shot is here; I ordered a B-52, and it arrives on fire. I realize only after it is in front of me that this was probably a drink order in poor taste (the shot’s name is derived from the U.S. B-52 long-range bomber that was used during the Vietnam War to release incendiary bombs – but I’m sure the Vietnamese people have pretty much forgotten about that little debacle… right?). I’ve never had the flaming variant before, and I’m at a loss as to what to do with it. Fortunately, my fellow boaters are replete with suggestions.
“You’re supposed to drink it, just like that! Your mouth liquid will quell the flames!”
“Why is it on fire? I’ve never seen a B-52 on fire before! Is it meant to be ironic?”
“Don’t be silly, you can’t drink it while it’s on fire! Blow it out first, girl!”
“No, they always come on fire. You just drink it, don’t worry! You usually don’t get burns from it if you down it fast enough…”
At the last minute, I flake out, blow out the flames, and down the shot, to the boos and cheers of the rest of the group. I may be a coward, but I’m not putting a flaming beverage into my body.
After a few hours of talking, singing, laughing, attempts at squid-fishing, and photo-taking, we decide to call it a night. Our waiter seems disappointed that so few of us joined him in karaoke and has sulkily shut off the machine early.
As we are gathering our things, the Australian Bryan Adams orders another drink as his wife looks on incredulously.
“Honey, you’re having another one?”
“Yeah, why not? It’s a nightcap!”
“But everyone’s going to bed!”
“Are they? C’mon guys, it’s early! Let’s have a nightcap.”
“Honey, no! They’re all going to bed!”
As the good-natured argument continues, Ashleigh and I head to our room. The sounds of waves lapping against the boat, the flame of the B-52 taunting me, and the memory of the embarrassing karaoke attempt are all fresh in my mind as I fall asleep.
To see more photos from northern Vietnam, go to my album on Flickr!