All You Really Need To Know
- Cost: $185 AUD for standard 3d/2n tour, $50 each night after that, additional activities $30
- What: Booze Cruise
- Where: Ha Long Bay, Vietnam (leaves from Hanoi)
- When: Every day, but May-July is the best time to go as it hits the balance between warm and dry
- Why: Because getting cultural and discovering yourself in one of the most beautiful countries on the planet is great, but sometimes you just want to get shitfaced with a couple of strangers and puke on a World Heritage Site.
[alert type=”info”]Important Tip: Hanoi Backpackers’ Hostels has significantly revamped the Castaways Ha Long Bay trip in the year since I went on the cruise. Ultimately this doesn’t matter too much, since I did all the extras, but keep it in mind. Not that I’m expecting a lot of angry emails after you finish a trip like this.[/alert]
There they were again – the wolverine scars. Three parallel burns marking the right shoulder of yet another drunken backpacker, laughing and gesticulating from one table over, his beer sloshing out of its bottle with every wild wave. I’ve seen the scars at least ten times by now. It’s always the same person, this wildly posturing chah brah alpha male in a Chang Beer tank. British or Australian, probably. The guy you expect to see facedown in a few hours, piss running down his leg. In Vietnam, guys like this get injuries and wear them like a badge of honor, propping their bandaged foot up on a chair and blathering on about the time they got drunk and crashed their motorbike into a palm tree in Da Lat. They’re the worst people in the world – I love them with all my heart. Guys like this get injured a lot, but these scars are always in the same place, the same position. I had to ask.
“Mate,” he said, Australian as can be, jutting out a flat hand like some messiah calming a petulant child, “I can’t tell you how I got them, but I can tell you where. Booze cruise to end all booze cruises up in Ha Long Bay.”
Castaway Island. Ha Long Bay. The booze cruise to end all booze cruises.
I’d heard of it before. On my very first trip abroad, to Thailand back in 2012, I had all but fallen in love with an English girl who regaled me with tales of her time in Vietnam, floating on flotsam dragged behind an old junker through Ha Long Bay. They had put a guy with a dick the size of a Pringles tube into a short dress during a drinking game and forced him to stay in it for the rest of the night, and he got so drunk that it hung out the bottom all lackadaisical-like, until that night she walked in on him having a threesome with two other chicks in her room. And that was only the first day. Maybe it was the stars already in my eyes, but I needed to go.
She never mentioned the Wolverine scars, but while teaching in Vietnam a tab over two years later, I saw them on just about every young dude riding a shitty motorcycle from Hanoi to Saigon. So wiith recommendations from both the most gorgeous and coolest girl I’d ever met, and one of the most disastrous looking human beings lucky enough to survive to reproductive age, I made room in my budget and set off up north.
The hostel running Castaways is in Hanoi, a four hour bus journey from Ha Long Bay with nothing but a quick stop at a tourist trap in between, as if a bunch of backpackers in party hats can be bothered to buy a six hundred pound marble statue of the Buddha when they can barely justify buying a bottle of water to soothe their already aching hangovers, preemptively getting worse in anticipation for the chaos ahead. The bus ride is an arms race between your excitement and your headache. A roller coaster. It’s nearly impossible to avoid drinking the night before the trip. If you rest up, prepare your mind and body, the devil on your shoulder will remind you of the bonds being formed right now, out there, this second, and if you don’t make any effort you’ll be the tagalong, standing outside the group laughing at jokes never directed towards you. So you’ll go out on the bar crawl. It will be awesome. And vis-a-vis, you’ll wake up with a hangover on cruise day. And you’ll sit on a bus for four hours. At least they gave you giant party sombreros that don’t fit in the seats.
[alert type=”info”]Important Tip: The tour is run out of Hanoi Backpacker’s Hostels, of which there are two. The Downtown location, on Ma May, is larger and more party oriented, so if that’s what you’re looking for (and if you’re going on Castaway, yeah, that’s what you’re looking for), stay in that location in the nights leading up to your tour. There are pub crawls and drinking games just about every night, plus tours around the city (don’t bother with the Snake Village) and great food right outside.[/alert]
We boarded the boat in the harbor near Ha Long Bay, the long black karsts reaching up over the horizon like witches’ fingers. It was an old Chinese junker, the kind that used to sail these waters centuries ago, like I’d heard so much about already. On any other cruise, this would seem “authentic” and “cultural,” but after spending half a year in hostels (and knowing what the cruise was about), it felt more like a floating bunk bed you lie awake in while the couple above you cums too loudly. Cheap wooden boxes designed to force you out into the communal sunlit areas, with copious amounts of alcohol.
Before the tour really begins, it’s important to understand the rules you’ll be following. There’s the standard booze cruise rules – “don’t get so smashed you wade into the water and die” – but there are also specific drinking rules in play as well.
- T-E-N – You are not to say the word “ten,” instead you must spell it out. Failure to comply results in ten pushups. Keep in mind, these games are always in play, so if you’re kayaking through the bay when you say the word, you’ll be doing pushups on a kayak.
- How’s That? – If you’re handed anything, anything at all, and somebody says “how’s that?” before you can say “not out!” you are required to “finish” whatever was handed to you. In most cases, this refers to beers, and the subsequent shotgunning of such. But you can get creative. Boxes of cigarettes being all smoked at once, entire bottles of sunscreen being put on, lifejacket safety manuals being read in one sitting. Do your worst.
- Shotgun – Not so much a drinking game as a ritual, a shotgun on Castaways is a sacred thing that must be completed in a certain way.
- A litany of other games – While T-E-N and How’s That are played religiously (there will be somebody on your boat that becomes annoying about it), you can implement just about any drinking rule you’d like. They’re all good stuff.
[alert type=”info”]Important Tip: It’s a booze cruise, but alcohol isn’t included in the price. It’s still pretty cheap, but make sure you bring enough, because there are no ATMs on the island (or at least, there weren’t when I went – they are renovating the island). You can start a tab, but it’s a hassle.[/alert]
We were three beers deep before there were any rumblings of movement underneath our legs. The ferry to the junker can’t hold a full contingent of backpackers (my tour only had about 25 people on it, but there can be up to 50), so we had delved into the drinking games while waiting for the second group’s arrival. But after twenty or so minutes (there were shotguns involved, as there would be for the entire rest of the weekend, as a general rule, in perpetuity), we were told that there was a typhoon moving into the bay and thus we would not, in fact, be able to spend the first night on the boat as expected. We’d be heading directly to the eponymous Castaway Island, the private island owned and operated by the hostel.
The tour runs on a rotation. Each morning, a bus full of enthusiastic young backpackers, eyes glimmering with hope, arrives at the junker for a day of kayaking, drinking, drinking games, backflips off the boat, laughing at the guy who accidentally bellyflopped, feeling bad when it looks like he might be dead, laughing again once he says he’s okay, and drinking. The next day, that ferry heads to the island, where this group, a nauseated glaze just beginning to creep across their eyes, moves into the rooms just vacated by the previous day’s tour, whose eyes may as well be made of hardboiled egg yolks for all the luster in them. And the day after that, they become those egg yolk tourists, wishing the next group luck as they board the ferry back to Hanoi. It’s like a laundry service that takes the island’s dirty, semen-encrusted towels and replaces them with slightly less dirty, semen-encrusted towels. It’s a well-oiled hangover machine.
By skipping the Junker night, we threw a wrench in the machine.
[alert type=”info”]Important Tip: What was an unfortunate detour for us is now the standard – there are no nights spent on the boat at all. You can add a four hour cruise through the bay to your trip for an extra fee, but you can’t sleep on it. Unless you’re hungover as shit, in which case, pass out wherever you’d like. This means that your tour is all but guaranteed to be more like mine.[/alert]
By 6 PM, the sun was beginning to cast an orange glow, melting into the lanterns being lit on the distant beach we trundled towards. Sounds of music skipped across the water, electro beats bouncing off the opposite cliffs and echoing into our backs. There were already dozens of people on the island. Our group, combining our first night with the current castaways’ last, would put a full 60 people there at once – bigger than the largest individual tours.
But like the island from Lost, Castaways takes in these new souls and provides all they need (also like the island from Lost, at least one person is bound to get pregnant there). The sleeping huts line the beach, a row of of wooden cabins with haphazardly steep steps, guarded by a sandy trail and a line of trees. Around twelve in total, sleeping six people in each, though nobody actually expects to spend the night in their designated area. A line forms for the shower at night, but most people don’t bother, and you can piss just about anywhere anyway. Most people spend all their time on the beach or in the kitchen, its large tables being the perfect size for dancing, and at meal times, where everybody eats together, even our largest group could sit comfortably, shoulder-to-shoulder though we were. We were sat there, beers in hand, as soon as we got off the ferry. The guides needed to explain the rules:
- Don’t litter. Don’t be a dick like that.
- Actually, don’t be a dick at all, if you can help it.
- Respect the staff. Oh, not the guides. The guides are belligerent monsters themselves. But Hanoi Backpackers Hostel employs locals with fair wages and benefits, and being a guest in Vietnam, it’s important to act like such. The cooks and the cleaners do their best to show you a good time. Pay them back.
- Don’t go in the water at night if you’re drunk. They have to say it, but it’s like that rule on the box of Q-Tips forbidding you from sticking them all the way down your ear canal. Fuck off, Q-Tip box. If I cared about my inner ear health I wouldn’t go to all these festivals.
On most tours, the guides are professional employees, keeping a safe distance from the people in their charge to provide a safe and fun time. But you can sacrifice one for the other. On Castaways, oversight is less valued than immersion. The guides are generally backpackers themselves, people who love to party and have made it a profession, or at least a three month stint before their liver gives out.
On our tour, the guides were a colorful bunch. They were: Tiny, the six foot eleven hulk from England, Monkey, who got his name for drunkenly throwing shit at one point, Downey, the Kiwi doctor who could chug a beer in half a second, and Junior, Downy’s younger brother, who would go on to fuck at least one of the guests on each and every tour. They were quirky, they were belligerent. They were the exact same kind of person I’d see with the Wolverine scars down their arm. And they were the perfect people to lead our tribe to the brink of destruction on a tour that lasted just not quite long enough to send us over the precipice.
[alert type=”info”]Important TIp: If you are interested in becoming a guide (you’ll be interested afterwards), all you have to do is ask. Two people on my trip ended up becoming guides – one stayed on the job for over a year, the other is still there in a management position at the hostel. Hanoi Backpackers can facilitate visas.[/alert]
The first night is hazy. A kaleidoscope memory of shotgunned beers, shots taken, skinny dipping, table dancing, people kissing, a full moon glittering. I remember the stars, though. Ha Long Bay is separated from the lights of the world by miles of ocean and walls of granite. Before the moon rose, the stars were out like never before, giving the night sky a texture like a stucco wall, like you could reach out and feel their mass on the tips of your fingers. I lay in the sand, contemplating this. Everything a scale of gray. Then I woke up in bed. It was not the same hut I had put my bag, and I wasn’t cuddled up to anybody who might have claimed in first.
I stumbled into the kitchen, where only two people and the cook were already awake. By the light of the sun, I figured it was about 7 in the morning, Lumps of driftwood scattered the beach, though gradually they moaned and groaned and sat up and became people again. The breakfast bell was rung soon after.
[alert type=”info”]Important Tip: Because everybody eats together, you don’t really get a chance to eat whenever you want. Fill up even if you’re not hungry. They do serve snacks (like Pringles) at the bar, though.[/alert]
Alcohol is served all day, but nobody really starts until noon at the earliest. During the day, there are too many other things to do, and the guilt begins to creep in. You’re in Vietnam – one of the most remote and exotic countries you can visit on Earth without catching Ebola. To spend that time solely drinking would be sacrilegious – or at least not deserving of an entire article on a humble travel blog, lest it lead the reader to make assumptions about the proclivities of its writer. At the very least, you could partake in a volleyball tournament on the beach, though you’ll still make shotgun bets on the outcome.
We lost the volleyball tournament, and to add insult to injury, I forgot to say “Not Out” when handed a bottle of sunscreen and was forced to put the entire thing on, staining my skin a shade of Grimace purple and my eyes a stinging red. You spend the whole time on that little stretch of beach, nestled between a rock climbing cliff and a gringo farang, you’ll lose your mind to the self-fulfilling prophecy of the tour. There are other activities, too, like tubing and wake boarding and rock climbing. But they all take place on that same beach.
But right across the stretch of water lapping the sandy shore is a cove. It takes about fifteen minutes of paddling to reach it, but as the kayak drifts between the cliffs that protect the hidden, all sound melts away. I looked up at the sky, a hole of blue dotted by chirping birds flitting between the patches of green on the black rocks. The air still as a monolith. Those birds found their rocky nests, unawares to the intruder floating below. Their chirps echoed, such was the silence.
It didn’t last long. It wasn’t virgin territory. But it was silence, pure and unfiltered naure. There’s not another place like it in Vietnam.
There are other secrets to be found on Castaways. It’s a party boat by every definition, but the location makes it unique. The Wolverine scars now mark my arm as well, try as I might to be more than the typical drunken backpacker. I can’t tell you how I got them. I can only tell you where. Ha Long Bay. Castaway Island. The booze cruise to end all booze cruises.