Our ten year anniversary felt like a big deal, especially after spending the previous year doing long distance. Since my boyfriend and I had recently moved to Hanoi, Vietnam, it was an easy decision to spend our special day at Ha Long Bay. Based on the recommendation of a friend, we booked onto the Castaway tour for 3 days and 2 nights on a secluded island in the bay. Sounds magical right? We thought so too.
Things began to seem a little strange when we were asked to commute to the local backpackers’ hostel for pickup. The lobby was over flowing with barely 20 somethings in tourist t-shirts, flowing elephant print pants and those pointy hats that the markets sell to mimic the ones that the farmers wear. We pushed our way into the lobby and waited for our names to be called for the bus. There was a lot of grunting from the testosterone fueled conversations, hair flicking and squealing from the females and a good percentage of the crowd were drinking beer despite the fact that it hadn’t even hit 9am. I snuggled up to Josh and hoped that our group wouldn’t be so bad.
As we boarded the bus, things started going how you would have expected. The alpha males grouped together in the back (just like high school) and emitted hyena-like laughter over the sounds of cracking beer cans. The girls surrounded them while singing out a tune of vocal fry and using the word LIKE so much that you would have thought they were getting commission for it. I looked out the window, trying to enjoy the view.
Halfway to the ferry, one of the group leaders stood up to get everyone’s attention as she wanted to explain the island rules. Good, I thought, ready to hear about the safety procedures and practical information. What came out of her mouth next confirmed that I had made a huge mistake by trusting my friend’s recommendation without doing additional research.
“First rule, if you see anyone drinking with their right hand, you must yell BUFFALO at them. They then have to chug their entire drink no matter how full it is.” “Rule two, the island bar stays open as long as there is at least one person still drinking at it.” “Rule three, if you say (some frequently used word that I can’t remember) you must do ten pushups in a row.” When she asked if anyone had any questions, one of the guys in the back piped up with “ umm…ha ha….can you, like, remind me what the word is that we aren’t supposed to say…haha (stifled laughs and grunts from the group.) Easy going Josh looked at me with a (it is what it is) smile and I sighed in misery realizing that I was headed to a secluded island with these people and there was no turning back.
After commuting by ferry and boat where the staff’s first order of business was to offer us cans of beer, we pulled up to the island. To the background of blasting house music, I watched the men below gather around to scope out the incoming shipment of ladies arriving on our boat. We checked in, thankfully were put in a couples cabin and served a surprisingly delicious lunch buffet. The day was looking up and we hung around on the beach waiting for the boat to pick us up and take us on a booze cruise around the bay.
Once on board, I tried to snap myself out of a negative mentality as it was pretty hard to be miserable while surrounded by the massive limestone pillars of Ha Long Bay. It was beautiful, and as I looked around, I noticed that we were among only a handful of people actually looking at it. Everyone else was standing in circles, watching each other drink beer. I tried not to hate them. I mean, I was witnessing a natural wonder and they were just having a good time. I drank a few beers myself, joined in on the dance circle and even chugged my beer when one of the guys timidly approached me, preceded by saying he was “really sorry” and then informed me that I was in fact drinking my beer with my right hand. At least he was polite about it.
Dinner that evening, although exactly the same as lunch, was delicious yet again. The staff invited the girls to serve themselves at the buffet first, a nice gesture that was tarnished by the presence of the most alpha of them all. Let’s call him Rob because I have no idea what his actual name was. However, him and his girlfriend Claire (I only remember her name because he was always yelling at her) make many appearances in this story. Rob proceeded to push his way into the line of girls saying that he didn’t care in the least abut waiting his turn. Much later in the meal, he could be seen shirtless, on top of the cafeteria style table where other guests were still eating, stomping and fist pumping to the house music, simultaneously shaking the plates of the diners with his bare feet.
The staff attempted to arrange some games after dinner which involved sticking a strand of toilet paper between someone’s bare butt cheeks and lighting it on fire. The game was often interrupted when the people in charge would suddenly turn off the lights, pull down their pants and flash the entire crowd with their willies upon turning them back on. The bass heavy music was turned up, a staff member was puking in the corner, everyone began dancing and Rob and Claire were loudly fighting about Rob’s suggestion to another girl to take her shirt off. Josh and I decided to skip the staff’s encouraged skinny dipping venture and head to bed.
Although seemingly a nice thought that the staff offered a separate couples cabin, the gesture proved useless when groups of single girls were considered to be couples and also added to the dorm. Single ladies, an all night bar and hoards of horny boys did not work out well for the actual couples in the cabins. As Josh slept peacefully with the ear plugs he intelligently brought, I laid awake, unwillingly listening to the dude in the bed below us trying to work his way into a threesome with the two 17 year old girls staying in our room. I don’t know what happened as I dozed off but was eventually woken by Claire and Rob who had decided to continue their loud argument directly outside our cabin.
Soon after falling asleep again, my slumber was disrupted by one the 17 year olds yelling “F**k that guy Josh! (seemingly the threesome guy) He is an idiot! Actually f**ck everyone named Josh! They are all assholes!” I looked at my angelic, sleeping boyfriend, also named Josh and resisted jumping down to strangle her. When her friend tried to quiet her down, to be respectful to the others, she countered with a hearty “F**k those people. F**k couples! They are all so f**king boring!” Four in the morning rolled around and the house music finally faded out. I fell asleep to the sound of the waves and gave up on achieving REM when it started up again at 7am.
The next day, we ate a similar buffet meal and watched as hung over islanders emerged from their cabins and traded places with those who hadn’t yet gone to sleep. Since it was the day of our actual anniversary, we decided to rent kayaks and get away from our frat party of an island. We kayaked far out into the bay, found some actual secluded beaches and spent time doing all of the generic couple activities like finding sea shells for each other and confessing our love through writings in the sand. Whatever. It was cute. Getting hungry, we sadly hopped back in the kayaks and followed the house music back to our island for dinner.
The scene wasn’t much different on the second evening. Rob was shirtless and doing pull-ups from the rafters for no apparent reason as Claire, who apparently seemed to have forgiven him for the night before swooned. One of the staff members who had shared that he had previously served in the military was leading a group in making each other pass out through strangulation by the bar and an extremely intoxicated girl broke into the bathroom that I was mid-using and demanded that I help her find her lost cell phone. I had had enough by this point and was counting down the minutes until the boat came to get us the next day. We headed to our cabin and went for round two of trying to get some sleep. I fell asleep listening to sounds of puking, a loud thud and concerned voices debating whether someone out there was going to be OK or not.
After getting in a few hours of sleep, I was inevitably woken by a male voice, trying to get into the bed of a different group of girls in the bunk. It started off with “OH MY GOD! Rachel, I am so glad I found you. You don’t EVEN know what I just went through. I was like…in the water…swimming..and Jen was in the water swimming…and then…like…she was just gone. I was freaking out because I didn’t know where she went. And I was all like….Jen! Jen! Where are you? So then I like came to this cabin and I found you and I’m happy now. Wait. Where am I? I don’t even know where I’m at right now. Let’s go to the beach beach….”(continues to sing that crappy Nicki Minaj song for no reason.) Then there was a bit of yelling from other pissed off couples and eventually, after another 30 minutes, he went away.
Whether I fell asleep or not, it’s not very clear, but I woke up to blaring house music at 7 am. Breakfast was filled with the same old zombies who drank too much the night before and as I got kicked out of my cabin by the cleaning crew and told that I would just have to wait to use the toilet while they were closed for maintenance, my excitement to leave was hard to hide. Toes in the sand, we literally sat waiting on the beach with our belongings for the boat to pick us up.
This time, the ride back to Hanoi was much more peaceful as most of the group slumped over the seats hung over, Rob generously using Claire as a pillow while he slept. There was only one guy still chugging beers, trying to keep the party going for as long as he could. I tried to enjoy the scenery on the bus ride back while trying to ignore the ex-marine staff member making out with one of the girls in the seat directly in front of me. When the bus pulled into the center of Hanoi, Josh and I couldn’t get off fast enough. We took a cab back to our apartment and promised each other that we would always do our research before booking anything again.
While the Castaway tour of Ha Long Bay was an absolutely HORRIFIC choice for a 10 year anniversary celebration, I still release that there is a market for that sort of trip. I mean, hey, if I was a 17 year old single girl, I probably would have had a good time too (actually, I’m certain that I wouldn’t have.) We had a pretty horrible experience but it was no one’s fault but our own. If we would have only done the research, we would have known what to expect. At least I got an interesting story out of it.