How to Survive a Run-In with Beer-Chugging, Oreo-Stealing Monkeys


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How to Survive a Run-In with Beer-Chugging, Oreo-Stealing Monkeys

In Ha Long Bay, tourists ooh and ahh over the adorable macaque monkeys. Well, until they charge you to steal your Oreos, or take beer from you and get drunk off of it while staring at you.

Ha Long Bay is vast. It has almost 2,000 monoliths that jut out of the ocean, and blur in the skyline like purple mountain ranges. Just as you become accustomed to the rock formations, your boat floats into a new area that's drop-your-jaw gorgeous.

It's no wonder that the area is a UNESCO site and overrun with tourism. Tour boats dominate the waters, and kayakers depart from those boats with regularity. Most people buy their tickets in Hanoi to spend a night or two on the water on a ship. But there are thousands of boat companies that want you aboard, and you'll flip through pamphlets to decide which suits you best. In each of those pamphlets will be pictures of macaque monkeys, at which point the problematic hype to see a monkey begins. It becomes an item on each tourist's Ha Long Bay to-do list.


Once you arrive in Ha Long Bay, the tour guides won't make any promises, claiming that the monkeys are often hard to find, which is partially true. Langur monkeys are near impossible to find. A group of macaque, on the other hand, will find you.

Many of the macaque monkeys are as dependent on tourism as the tour companies. Foreigners expect to see monkeys, and so tour guides must find ways to provide that experience. In doing so, they hook the monkeys on human food.

Some tour guides paddle their group into a beautiful granite amphitheater, where they begin to beat on their kayak and toss bananas into the trees. It appeared to be classic conditioning—like Pavlov and his dogs—where the monkeys hear the noise and see the food, and grow to expect it. Eventually, they forget to hunt for food, and become dependent on tour guides to feed them.


"But the problem you describe is well known," said Frans de Waal, a PhD in psychology and director of Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. "Monkeys are fed by tourists, and then lose their fear of humans and come to expect food, so that people who give them no food get harassed."

I experienced such harassment. But it wasn't just over food. It was over beer.

"Yes, monkeys drink beer, too," my tour guide said, smiling after a gang of macaques had swarmed my tour group. We had been walking up a beach on Monkey Island, which is a tiny resort island in Ha Long Bay.


The monkeys had seen us arrive on the beach, which was deserted, as February is the offseason. There was an open-air beachside bar that had closed down. All that was left was a pile of chairs under a straw roof. When the gang of monkeys descended down the hill to the beach, it felt like a set from Rise of the Planet of the Apes, where they had driven humans from this part of the island.

They stood on the bar to make it clear immediately: Monkey Island was their island.

At first, they appeared to be taking incidental interest in us, checking us out. But never trust a monkey pretending not to have a purpose. They knew what they were doing—they smelled food on us, particularly me. I had no idea, however, why I was so much to their liking. They seemed to stumble around me, waiting for something. And I grew uneasy.


Finally, I ran through the contents of my backpack, and found what the monkeys had smelled. It was a half-eaten roll of Oreos. (Oreos are sold in rolls in Asia, as opposed to a full box. It's a more moderate serving, as opposed to the typical super-sized American approach.)

Upon seeing the flash of a wrapper, the alpha monkey charged. I looked at the Oreos, and without thinking, chucked them as far away from my person as I could. The monkey changed direction (thank god) and the news from a few years ago of a monkey that had ripped the face and hands off of a woman flashed before my eyes. That was in Connecticut, of course, and had nothing to do with animal domestication by means of tourism. But when a hungry monkey runs at you bearing his teeth, you tend not to think rationally.


"A macaque bite is potentially deadly, because B virus left untreated kills humans," de Waal said. "It is all very unfortunate and the only real solution is to forbid feeding by visitors, and leave the feeding to park wardens."

More easily said than done. I would have greatly preferred not to feed the monkey.


My girlfriend and I still had something the Oreo-stealing, asshole monkeys wanted. We had two cans of beer. So when my girlfriend grabbed a chair from the abandoned restaurant, she put down her unopened beer. As she walked down the steps, the monkey scampered behind her and scooped up the beer with two paws—looking at her the entire time, like a child defying its abusive parents and awaiting a punishing blow.

But the alpha monkey succeeded without issue, and took the beer to the corner of the restaurant. He bit into it and began shotgunning it like a freshman in college that forgot to pop the top. He sucked at the beer with foam spitting onto his cheeks and spilling onto his fur. And he stared us down while he did it.

Once he was finished, he left the can on the ground and wandered around the beach, probably hoping another tourist was stupid enough to present more food or beer. An infant monkey, likely less than a year old, wandered over to the can and began drinking foam off the floor. He plopped onto his butt and lifted the can above his head, pouring the remnants into his mouth. And finally, the beer was finished.


One beer remained. I considered throwing it to them as a peace offering, but they didn't want peace. These were a bunch of playground bullies that capitalized upon naiveté.

As a "fuck you" to the monkeys, I popped open my beer—and with eyes in the back of my head, because I was still scared they'd charge again—I chugged it. Probably because of adrenaline, I finished quickly and threw it by the Oreo wrapper, so that I could collect them both before I left the beach.

The rest of the time I spent on the beach was uncomfortable. It wasn't relaxing to share the beach with that bunch of beer-chugging primates, even though that's what I'd been doing for much of my trip (hint: humans are primates).


In front of me, litter was floating in to shore. Plastic bags hung in the water like jellyfish. And behind me, the meanest monkeys in Ha Long Bay patrolled the shoreline. Despite all this madness, however, my tour guide was never surprised. She knew it was the status quo, and probably knew that things were getting worse.

But she simply laughed, and affirmed things like aggressive, possibly alcoholic monkeys. Change was necessary—everyone on the beach knew it—yet it seemed impossible.