We arrived late at our hotel in Hanoi. The next morning we left early for Halong Bay, which is a three-hour drive from Hanoi.
"Before they built this highway," our tour guide said, "it took over half a day to get to Halong."
The last hour into Halong is still unpaved and consequently offers more adventure than I would prefer. Half a day of that must have been unbearable.
We shared the road with scooters, bicycles, oxen and carts on our journey. The roads are not separated into lanes, so traffic comes at each other often, veering and weaving, but miraculously managing to miss one another, most of the time.
The highway passes rice fields and small towns, that quickly begin to look the same. Occasionally we passed giant kilns that fire bricks commonly used for the houses here. In front of homes, left unattended, were stands selling beverages and souvenirs. At railroad crossings, an attendant sat patiently on a chair beside the road, ready to lower and lift the gate with a rope and pulley if and when a train approached.
These were the only signs of industry along the way.
The beauty and grandeur of Halong Bay quickly dispels whatever discomfort travelers may have getting there. The bay is calm and majestic in its sprawl, and best of all, it is not swarming with tourists and boats. Once out on the bay, it is as if you are alone in the world -- if it weren't for the pesky …