Kangaroo Café Hops Out to Halong Bay

by Steven K. Bailey, Feb 5, 2002 | Destinations: Vietnam / Halong Bay

The Kangaroo Cafe Minh Quang sets sail for Halong Bay.
Australians tuck into seafood before setting sail on the Minh Quang.
Sailing for Halong Bay.

Hanoi's popular Kangaroo Café has something new on the menu that's even bigger than its hefty hamburgers: A Halong Bay boat tour aboard the motor vessel Minh Quang.

This thirty-five dollar entrée includes two days and a night on the world-renowned Halong Bay. Complimentary extras include seafood smorgasbords, a flotilla of bright-red lilos, and the chance to literally glow in the dark.

Australian expatriate Max Hart has run the Kangaroo Café since 1998. The café sits on Pho Bao Khanh street near Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi's historic old quarter and offers an eclectic menu centered on culinary favorites from Down Under. The café's oversized burgers, in fact, have achieved near-cult status among the city's expats.

Kangaroo Café tours to Halong Bay are rapidly achieving a similar cult status among independent travelers exploring Vietnam, a status boosted by a recent endorsement in the 2001 edition of the Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam.

Kangaroo Café Enters Tour Business

When the Kangaroo Café first opened three years ago, Hart supplemented his restaurant business by serving as a booking agent for Halong Bay tours run by the well-regarded TF Handspan, a Vietnamese-owned company. While TF Handspan remained one of the best budget-tour operators in Hanoi, Hart nonetheless concluded that he could do better on his own. After careful consideration, he broke with TF Handspan and began the preparations necessary for the Kangaroo Café to offer custom-designed Halong Bay tours. Then Hart took a deep breath, banked on his business acumen, and rented the Minh Quang, a well-tended vessel built for sailing Halong Bay. His business has been cruising ahead at flank speed ever since.

Tan, Huang, and the Minh Quang

Hart knows that the success of his seagoing venture hinges on the quality of his boat, which explains why he rents the Minh Quang (Bright Light in English). A yellow dragon's head adorns the bow of this sturdy wooden-hulled vessel, which boasts two masts and three different decks. The wheelhouse sits half-way down the top deck, the front of which serves as a seagoing patio, complete with deckchairs, potted plants, and a commanding view. The roomy main deck resembles an American-style diner, with rows of comfortable booths running down each side of a center aisle. The kitchen and toilets occupy the stern on this deck. A warren of small cabins lie below deck with enough beds for fourteen people-a maximum tour size that ensures the boat never feels crowded.

Hart also realizes that his Vietnamese staff has as much to do with the success of his Halong Bay tours as the Minh Quang. So he employs a cadre of enthusiastic and energetic guides, including two young Vietnamese named Huang and Tan.

Huang wears a conservative striped shirt and carries a small overnight bag that suggests an understated professionalism. He introduces himself formally to tour members and fusses over the details of tickets and menus. Huang's sense of humor often breaks through his serious tour-guide persona like sun from cloud, however. He offers a wide smile that reveals the braces sheathing his teeth, then tells a story about the time he mispronounced the word "beach" as "bitch" while giving a spiel to a much-amused tour group.

Twenty-two-year-old Tan strikes a cooler pose with his sunglasses and Kangaroo Café T-shirt. He's never known foreigners as the enemy; he's only known them as allies in the struggle to better his lot. He's already got his mobile phone-a gift from his father, who runs an English-language institute in his hometown of Haiphong-and is saving for a Honda Dream motorbike.

"It costs maybe $1500 US dollars," he says. "That is the cheapest that is acceptable."

Tan goes on to claim that he'll remove the rearview mirror to keep his motorbike narrow enough to thread through traffic, and dispense with helmets because he can't kiss a pretty girl if they're both wearing headgear.

Unlike Huang and Tan, the boat crew speaks no English. They've grown used to foreigners, however, and try to accommodate their strange requests. The young helmsman, for example, cheerfully relinquishes the ship's wheel whenever tourists ask to steer the Minh Quang through the twisting channels of Halong Bay. He knows that most of them will end up zigzagging like a World War II freighter captain trying to evade a U-boat. Reclined on the bed-like shelf behind the wheel, he lets them play skipper until they head for the rocks. Without leaving his bed, the helmsman then calmly takes over and steers a dead-straight course with his feet.

French Graffiti and a Flotilla of Lilos

Though Kangaroo Café tours of Halong Bay offer a unique itinerary, they nonetheless begin the same way as every other company's tour-with a lengthy bus ride from Hanoi. In the case of the Kangaroo Café, Hart rents a comfortable bus piloted by a mercifully sane driver who steers, unlike his seagoing colleague, with his hands. This driver picks up tour members at their hotels and conveys them from Hanoi to Bai Chay, where the Minh Quang and her crew wait at the pier.

As soon as the guides and tour members are aboard, the Minh Quang heads out into Halong Bay. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Halong Bay consists of some three-thousand islands of varying size. All feature sheer gray cliffs and towering pinnacles tufted with scraps of jungle. Sea caves and hidden coves riddle the base of the cliffs. The Minh Quang rocks gently as it motors sedately through the protected waters while smaller fishing boats, some barely larger than a canoe, bob in its wake.

Eventually the Minh Quang docks at an island hollowed out with a maze of caves. A long staircase leads tour members up the cliff face to the largest of these caverns, where a trail illuminated with colored lights leads deep into the rock through grottoes back-lit with pink and purple electric lamps. Sadly, they discover that earlier visitors have defaced the cave like a mob of vandals. They've broken off stalagmites for souvenirs; they've marred the cave walls with graffiti. Colonial French visitors began the trend as far back as 1904-the proof remains etched in the rock for all to see-though since then just about every nationality in the world seems to have left a message carved into the rock. Still, the sprawling cave nonetheless remains a natural marvel, alternatively cathedral-like and fun-house maze in appearance. After thirty minutes of walking through the cool recesses of the caverns, tour members emerge higher up the cliffside for a panoramic view of the bay.

After another cruise through a fantastic seascape of rocky islands, the Minh Quang drops anchor and readies the Kangaroo Café's special tour equipment: a flotilla of bright-red lilos (floating airbeds). In what looks like an abandon-ship drill, the lilos go over the side followed by a whooping crowd of North American, European, and Australian travelers. Huang, Tan, and the boat crew follow suit. For several hours everyone splashes about on the lilos like kids at play, and then the boat weighs anchor and continues on to a secluded cove to moor for the night.

Few tours offer the option of a night spent on the water, since Vietnamese and other Asian tourists-the vast majority of people visiting the bay-have little interest in spending the night aboard ship. Many of the companies specializing in Western tourists prefer to offer day trips, or else put tour members up in hotels on Cat Ba Island or the mainland. Like the bright-red lilos, however, over-nighting on the bay remains a hallmark of Kangaroo Café tours.

Seafood Smorgasbord and Swimmers Who Glow in the Dark

After sunset tour members assemble on the main deck for a seafood smorgasbord that remains another hallmark of Kangaroo Café tours. As the Minh Quang slowly swings on its anchor line like a revolving restaurant floating in the night, the multi-talented boat crew prepares boiled crab, fried squid, and grilled fish served whole in a tomato-onion sauce. The cooks follow this up with French fries, rice, and rau muong (a sort of spinach-like green) while doing their best to accommodate vegetarians with vegetable soup, vegetable spring rolls, fried tofu, and a dessert fruit platter.

The hungry diners wash down all this seafood with quantities of Tiger beer and chilled white wine, the only part of the meal not included in the tour price. In an example of his attention to the details that truly matter, Hart keeps the drink prices reasonable for what is, after all, a captive market. A can of beer, for example, goes for just 15,000 dong (about one US dollar).

The beer puts a nice glow in the belly, but the after-dinner plunge into the bay puts a glow on the swimmers. Literally. Each person dives into the warm water, arches under the sea, and pops up in a spray of glowing phosphorescence. Every swing of an arm or leg ignites the water in a series of electric swirls. The face of the ocean suddenly resembles the night sky-a black galaxy of bright white dots that leaves dazzled swimmers astounded.

As the evening progresses the Minh Quang becomes a floating slumber party with guests from all over the world. The beer and the travelers' tales flow together until finally, after hours of good conversation, tour members drift off to bed. Most opt to sleep on the top deck beneath much-needed mosquito nets, and through the gauzy white netting they see the jagged outlines of the island pinnacles cast against a sky brilliant with stars. In a mirror image, the calm black waters of the cove reflect the stars and pinnacles. Then a dog's bark echoes incongruously off the cliffs from a distant boat, probably one of the all-purpose little vessels that serves as a family's home, transport, and livelihood. The gentle rock of the Minh Quang can barely be felt; tour members drift off to the creak of the anchor rope and the quiet splash of the hawser as it rises and falls from the water. Soon they're no doubt dreaming of seafood and phosphorescence.

Unless, of course, it rains. Weather remains the great variable on Halong Bay, and rain can wash over the bay like an unwanted party crasher. If it comes down at night, then everyone up on deck has to retreat to the diner benches on the main deck or the overheated cabins below.

Morning Return to Hanoi

Assuming rain didn't chase them below deck, tour members awake to a view of the gray and black cliffs hemming the cove like a palisade. The tide has dropped, revealing an apron of tan sand around the base of each rocky islet. Patches of jungle clinging to the rock glow a vivid green in the low morning light. A bird cries, and the call echoes among the pinnacles. Soon the first morning swimmers plunge into the dead-calm waters.

After an onboard breakfast, the Minh Quang heads for Cat Ba Island. Tan specializes in tours to Cat Ba, which can be added on to the standard two-day Halong Bay itinerary. "I can't remember how many times I've been there," he says with an easy nonchalance. "So many times. Maybe more than thirty."

Tan disembarks with those who've opted for the Cat Ba tour, bound for beach time and jungle trekking. Meanwhile, after a final round of swimming, Huang leads the remaining members of the tour back to shore for another gargantuan seafood meal and the long bus journey back to Hanoi. Huang judges the success of each tour by how quickly his charges fall asleep. If they start nodding off the minute the bus hits the road, which they generally do, then he knows that they spent the night eating, drinking, talking, swimming, glowing, and generally having the time of their lives.

Kangaroo Café Satisfies Even the Most Voracious Traveler

Tours to Halong Bay have become a house specialty at the Kangaroo Café, but no one will be shocked when they ask for the bill. After all, a Kangaroo Café tour to Halong Bay costs a mere thirty-five US dollars. Drinks aside, this fee covers everything: bus transport to and from Hanoi, two seafood lunches onshore, a seafood dinner and breakfast on the boat, a pair of guides, entrance fees to the bay, a night's lodging aboard the boat, and, of course, the use of the lilos.

The Kangaroo Café can sate the appetite of even the most voracious traveler. For empty stomachs, the café serves everything from half-pound burgers to vegetarian stir-fry. For those with an appetite for adventure in Vietnam, the café offers tours to both Halong Bay and the hilltribe communities of Mai Chau. Such gourmet entrées will surely satisfy even the hungriest visitor to Vietnam.

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The Kangaroo Café (known in Vietnamese as Con Chuot Tui Café)
18 Pho Bao Khanh, Hanoi
Telephone: (84-4) 828-9931
Email: kangaroo@hn.vnn.vn

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