Overnight there was a dramatic twist in our chronicle of Vietnamese adventures. Unprecedented (well, for us anyway) monsoon rain consistently chucked it down throughout the night. As daylight broke, fields were flooded on either side of the road and we started to wonder if we would get out into Halong Bay at all, let alone for the three days we had planned to go for. We would have been as well getting a junk cruise through the sodden fields flashing past our window…
I was interested to visit Hanoi as in 2003 it was the scene of a critical SARS outbreak. The doctor at the hospital at the epicentre tried to contain it by quarantining the hospital and taking a sample across the city by bike to the clinic. He saved countless lives but sadly succumbed to SARS himself.
We managed to figure out where we had been dropped off and which way to go. This was largely thanks to some Sherlock Holmes-esque detective work on my part. I realised the ‘River View Hotel’ must be on the side of the highway next to the river. What can I say, it’s a gift… Eventually we got to the hostel after much splashing through puddles and checked in. We looked at Halong Bay trips, struggled to find an ATM, had brunch, got hopelessly confused about real vs scam Halong Bay trips, booked the hostel’s trip anyway, hoped for the best, walked around Hoan Kiem Lake and had a sleep.
The next morning we woke at 7 and got breakfast at ‘Joma’ where we had had brunch the day before. Leaving our bags at the hotel, we checked out for our weekend tour of Halong Bay. Curiously, everywhere we had been to thus far in Vietnam (except Nha Trang) had begun with an ‘h’: Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An, Huế, Hanoi and Halong Bay! The bus that picked us up was a tad over packed with all the people going on the trip and it was a bit of a squeeze. Four hours later we arrived at Halong City port and boarded a small boat (like the one we got to go snorkelling in Nha Trang) to the main boat a little further out in the harbour – the Luxury Imperial Cruise.
On first impressions it was a wonderful and aptly luxurious vessel with friendly staff and a free rolled up face flannel on arrival, which I thought was a spring roll at first. We took our bags to our room which was nice, romantic and had decent window to view the bay from. Lunch was served as we headed into the bay: shell-on prawns, chicken, battered squid, rice – it was gorgeous. We were soon jumping up from our tables though to take photos as the majesty of the Halong Bay islands glided past the windows. There was plenty of space on all three decks to take pictures and I got some wicked shots of various islands, including the ‘kissing rocks’. The only sad thing is that after a few accidents the authorities made changes, one of which being that all boats with and been a beautiful traditional brown must now be painted white, spoiling a little the timeless vista.
The sun came out mid-afternoon, bathing the already lush green islands in a gorgeous golden light. I can’t think of anywhere more beautiful. It was like Milford Sound in New Zealand but more exotic. At 15:30 we arrived at the ‘Surprising Cave’ and were given a guided tour. It is named after its unexpected TARDIS-like quality of being far bigger on the inside. In 1901 a French geology thesis student discovered the small opening and was shocked at the vast cave within. It’s a shame really as I was hoping it was named because it was where surprise birthday parties were held.
Different parts of the cave were lit up with different coloured lights, which sounds gimmicky but was rather effective. It felt like an epic film set for a movie about cave goblins or some magic nonsense. We were repeatedly shown that certain rock formations look like animals (the Vietnamese are very pareidolia driven) which was a bit boring until there was a penis shaped one pointing a hole in the roof. The scale and diversity of stalactites above and stalagmites below and how often they overlap is worth seeing even is geology isn’t your thing.
Next we kayaked round the bay for 45 minutes which was fun. The water was clear and warm and despite a bit of rubbish floating about it was great. Then again, as Jodes pointed out, this isn’t a first world country so even though it’s a UNESCO World Heritage sight, they’re hardly likely to be able to afford large scale clean up operations.
We got the small boat back to the Luxury Imperial Cruise and were given a complimentary glass of wine from the best (and I suspect only) grape in Vietnam. As the sun set outside our bedroom window, life felt perfect. Dinenr at 7pm was magnificent: beautiful pork, prawns, octopus salad and radish carved to look like a duck! There was karaoke that night but we avoided it and sat on deck admiring this stunning bay in this wondrous country. There are two things I miss about Vietnam: being a millionaire (2.1 million Dong = $100 USD), and saying ‘Một, hai, ba YO!’ for ‘cheers’ moments when drinking (it literally means ‘one, two, three, go!’)
We woke at 7 the next morning to the most gorgeous view and and breakfast on the restaurant deck. After a brief visit to the Pearl Farm to see how the pearling process works, we got back on the Luxury imperial and checked out, before hopping on another little boat for a while. On the way to our bungalow on where we would stay the night, one of the tour guides showed us magic tricks and we got chatting to another couple from Melbourne. We and lunch at Nam Cat island and check out our bungalow in the beautiful Lan Ha Bay.
That afternoon we got a boat round to Cat Ba island to go cycling. Like in Hoi An, the bikes had no gears so we had to push them uphill from time to time. Also, it was a bit muddy due to recent rainfall, but it was pure paradise and the most fun ride ever. It felt like being in ‘Lost’ a bit as we cycled into Viet Hai village on Cat Ba island. After a well earned drink we headed back round to complete a 6km round trip. It was then a 40 minute boat trip back to Nam Cat island and the late afternoon light made the islands and islets majestic and magical.
As soon as we got back we kayaked in the bay as the sun set before indulging in a great meal of chicken, pork, rice, chips, shrimp and salad. In the evening we just chilled in the most romantic bay I have ever seen. The stars looked stunning, although after ten months Down Under, I still wasn’t used to the northern hemisphere sky!
We awoke the next morning in Jurassic Park paradise land but it was raining. We had breakfast before getting the little boat back to the Luxury imperial. All through the trip we had been entertained by an arrogant obese Frenchman with a love for constantly complaining to the staff and a bizarre sense of humour. He regularly infuriated the crew with his ludicrous demand s(‘no! I speak now – you listen! Eet eez my turn to speak’), but his best moment was on the previous day’s bike ride. He had ignored instructions and shot ahead and when we rode over a crest we saw his bike lying in the middle of the road with hims few feet away lying dead still, head on the roadside rocks. It looked pretty bad and our tour guide dropped his bike and ran to his body, which still wasn’t moving. At this point, he turned his head to reveal a massive grin on his face – he was merely pulling a prank. An odd individual indeed, it was hardly surprising he was the only single person on a boat full of couples. We had a cookery course on how to make spring rolls on the return journey – naturally, our French friend insisted on cooking about twelve just for himself and was soon bossing around anyone else who fancied a go.
After the four hour bus journey back to Hanoi, we checked back into our hotel and I attempted to buy cheap shoes but they had no decent ones large enough for my feet, which I and hitherto thought were pretty average in size – apparently not so by Asian standards!