Heavenly Ha Long Bay!

Trip Start Jan 15, 2010
Trip End Nov 09, 2010

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oriental sails cruise boat

Flag of Vietnam  ,
Monday, August 23, 2010

It’s just about a three hour minivan ride from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay, and for our two night trip and stay there just about everything went right. There is not a lot to say about things we did and sights we saw, but the bay (though that word sounds a little small for the size of the place) is absolutely beautiful and well worth a trip if ever in Vietnam. It was a highlight spot for us!

The manager (Spring) at the Jasmine Hotel where we stayed in Hanoi was excellent in assisting and making reservations for everything (tours, buses, trains, boats and cruises). She showed us several different options for how to see Ha Long Bay and we settled on a two night cruise with Oriental Sails. We had had a little rain in Hanoi and were hoping for the best for those two nights.

Fully loaded with our excellent breakfast from the Jasmine (omelets, fresh fruit, mango shakes!), we set off in our minivan for the Bay. Among our options when deciding accommodations was how big a boat did we want to be on and how many nights. Seems many just do one night, but we chose two. We also opted for a smaller boat, which in our case would end up having just about a dozen passengers. Nice and small, just what we wanted.

The drive was fairly uneventful, passing through endless fields of rice farms as we slowly moved out of the congestion of the big city into the countryside. Spread out in their random grid like patterns, though not at all uniform in size, the locals wading through the shin-deep water managing their crops.

We didn’t really know what to expect when we got there, but as you get close you can start to see the landmark limestone peaks randomly start popping up in the water. The town of Ha Long Bay, at least the part we drove through, was quite small - but it does have the signs of impending growth for increased tourism, ongoing hotel construction.

As we pull into the parking lot for the boat docks, we are clearly not the only ones doing this. It’s like going to a cruise ship pier in the US for one of those huge ship cruises - only on a smaller scale with a hundred different small almost junk-like 100 foot long boats waiting just off shore in the water. The four of us in our van (excellent!, we only picked up one other couple on our way, validating our hope for a small crowd on our boat) get dropped off and told to wait with our bags. We stand around watching the mildly chaotic atmosphere of dozens of other groups of people coming and going, some getting off boats others getting on boats. There are a row of kiosks along the pier, selling drinks, snacks and souvenirs, along with several ladies walking around selling hats, fans and postcards. Our guide comes back with our tickets and we follow him through the gates to the waiting area for the transfer boats. The sun is shining and it all looks good.

The boats at first glance mostly all look very similar and aren’t really the most attractive things in the world. Rather boxy, mostly black and brown painted wood (no big white luxury liners in these waters), two or three stories tall with a flat roof with chairs and umbrellas on top. The transfer boat is just that, a water taxi that shuttles us through the maze of cruise boats and floating kiosks to our waiting home for the next two nights. All told I think there are just about ten of us in total that will be on our boat. We all climb aboard with our luggage and are very warmly greeted by the crew in the dining room. They have welcoming fruit drinks as we look around waiting for our cabin keys. This is not the US though, so there is never any type of emergency demonstrations that are typical of big cruises there - but there are a pile of life vests on the back of the boat.  :)

We get our keys and take our things to our room, which is very nice. It’s a boat so nothing is huge, but the walls are all dark wood and very nice looking. Not much else there, so we go up top to watch the sights as we leave the docks for the “high seas”. We don’t really know or understand what kind of itinerary we may be under, but the boat starts up and off we go. Ha Long Bay we are told has 1,969 different limestone islands scattered all over the Bay, some big and some smaller than our boat. The vast majority have no sandy beach waterfront but are literally rocks that jut straight up out of the water. It’s beautiful, and we are very excited about being there for the next couple days!!

Away from the docks the first order of the day is lunch. This is where we discover another excellent thing about this simple boat. The food is gourmet good!!! We are going to eat very well these next couple of days. And at times it’s going to be pretty food too.

First stop of the afternoon is a cave in one of the larger islands. The boat drops us off at the foot of the steps leading up the hill and we all follow our guide up the 100 or so steps to the entrance of the cave, which is not like any other cave we’ve ever been in. This one is enormous, easily over a football field long and in some places maybe 50 feet high. No claustrophobic feelings for anyone here, but it is filled with the natural cave formations of stalagmites, stalactites (which is which we can never remember!?) and other unique twists and turns created by the million years of water. It’s really a cool sight to see and a good stop.

Back on the boat for more cruising around the islets (many can’t really be called islands I don’t think) until we get to our parking spot for the night. It’s a cove like setting with the sun starting to fall behind one of the jutting peaks to the west. Anchored, several decide to jump off the front of the boat and swim around before dinner. Tamara joins them while I watch and photo from the boat. The oddity we observe is the tide. While the Bay is extremely beautiful in nearly all directions and views, there is a small bit of a trash problem as well when you look closer. We noticed it while leaving the port, it’s visible as you cruise around and it was visible when we anchored. It’s not a huge problem, but it is there. That’s why I decided not to jump in the water where we were - but in just the first 30 minutes after being anchored the tide had moved so much that it literally took all the trash with it out of the area we were sitting. It had become a completely different body of water in that short span of time. I’m not sure where it all went, but I know it was not being picked up elsewhere and will just return the next day when the tide changes directions. I hope something is done to remedy the trash problem in this Bay over time because the trash is real and the Bay is spectacularly beautiful and should stay that way.

After the short swim it was time for our gourmet dinner - and wine! We have not really seen wine since we left Europe or it was just too darn hot to drink wine over cold beer, but we finally were back in the perfect environment for some red wine with our dinner. The food was all delicious and just kept coming. The courses were not huge, but there were probably six or eight different things we were brought. Yum!

The next day would be our highlight day of the cruise. We had signed up for the “beach and kayak” excursion, though we did not know what that would entail. After breakfast we were just told that we would be going off on another smaller boat that would take us to a beach for a few hours. The other boat was much smaller (30-40 feet), really just a shell with bench seats around the interior and small tables in the center. On the roof a few chaise lounge chairs under a shade covering. What we learned when we first got on was that we were the only people that would be on the boat (other than the two man crew) - it was all ours!!! After we got on and pulled away from our mother ship, realizing the glorious luck of the situation we were giddy with excitement. We had not signed up for the private tour, but by pure luck that is just what we got.

The second crewman that was not driving had marginal English and tried to tell us where we were going and what we would be doing for the next several hours. He showed us the seats on the roof, which were better for viewing the beauty of the Bay. We sat down up there, sat back and took it all in, including the beer he offered us at 9:30am. This was going to be a fun afternoon!

After a short bit of cruising we got to a spectacular looking cove area of Cat Ba Island which had a small sandy beach tucked in the middle. The tide rises and falls so much here, this beach is probably not even visible when the tide is up; it would be under water. We anchored about a quarter mile from shore, this was our beach and we were the ONLY people we could see on the entire planet for the next two hours - and it began pouring rain. Thankfully it looked like a passing squall and was just that. After a short wait the rain stopped and the sun came out, our guide pointed to the beach and said he would kayak a bag of towels and our cameras to the shore and how did we want to get there. We told him we would jump in and swim, and we did. The water here was spotlessly clean, making everything perfect. When we got to the shore he asked us how long we wanted to stay and he would return to the boat to leave us alone and prepare lunch for later. Still not fully understanding the itinerary for anything, with some back and forth discussion we settled on 90 minutes. After that we would return to the boat for lunch, then cruise to another section of the Bay to go kayaking.

The small beach we had was covered in water-worn coral pieces. The tide was mostly out when we first got there, exposing some of the rocks on either side of the beach and the rock wall behind the beach went straight up for a couple hundred feet, mostly covered in dense vegetation. It was beautiful. We wandered back and forth on the beach, collecting pieces of coral and small shells, swimming around the shallow warm water on either side of the beach and just taking it all in. Eventually we decided it was time to for lunch so we bagged up our stuff, left it sitting higher on the beach (the tide had noticeably come in while we were there) and casually swam back to the boat. The guide kayaked back to the beach to retrieve our bag and returned to serve us lunch. It was just a small little boat with two guys as the crew, but they managed to make the lunch presentation as gourmet as they could (they‘ve clearly done this before). They had carved carrots, cucumbers and potatoes into cute animal shapes to decorate the various dishes they prepared. It was good.

From there we cruised around to another side of the island and anchored again. Now it was kayak time, where we followed our guide into the water for a short excursion. It was nice though sweltering hot, paddling along a sheer wall of jungle trees where we saw at least a dozen wild monkeys swinging around the trees! After that we went into and through a cave-like underpass through the rocks before returning to the boat for our return cruise to the mother ship for the evening.

While we were cruising back standing on the top of the boat our guide talked about the weather, saying a typhoon storm was brewing in the area and would likely come tomorrow. I asked how he knew this so confidently and he mentioned both having seen some news of the event and that he could tell from the changing color of the water. Whatever his source of knowledge, his forecast would come true.

That evening before sunset you could see the storm clouds brewing. During dinner (more gourmet goods!) and before bed we were told that we may return to Ha Long City earlier than planned in the morning - and we did. When we got up the next morning the storm had started and the crew was preparing to the boat for return. The water was noticeably rougher and what the crew was doing was tying our boat to the sister boat from the same company. Two small boats tied together would make a larger more stable boat for the trip back to port. Several other boats were all pairing up as well and all were pointed in the same direction; port. The storm was not constant wind and rain, but rather came and went in waves. By the time we got to port it was in a lull and we were lucky enough to be able to get off the boat without getting wet.

It ended up raining almost the entire way back to Hanoi, but it did not at all dampen what was an excellent couple of days on beautiful Ha Long Bay!  Do it if you ever get the chance!
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Hair on Fire on

I love all this - the beauty, the water, the food! I will expect cooking lessons when you return.

Wooch on

Hey you two locos. I love the updates and checking in on you when I can. Vietnam looks incredible! You look like you are having the time of your life. HooRahHay!!! Big Hugs from Houston. We are preparing for Pace's 2nd birthday. He is a joy everyday, and he told me to tell you "Dinosaur"! Let us know if you see one:)


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