The Boat that Rocked!

Trip Start Oct 27, 2010
Trip End Ongoing

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What I did
Vinh Ha Long Halong Bay
Read my review - 5/5 stars

Flag of Vietnam  ,
Tuesday, July 26, 2011

    Any visit to Vietnam would not be complete without a tour of the legendary UNESCO site of 'Hạ Long Bay', located in the north-eastern edge of the country in the south Chinese sea; Ha Long is often referred to as the jewel in Vietnam's crown. Covering over 1,500 km2 of water and consisting of almost 2,000 tropical islands and karst limestone formations, this is one of the world's most beautiful destinations.

    I booked my tour with 'Hanoi Backpacker Hostel' who run a variety of tours and excursion around the north of Vietnam, including the 'Ha Long Bay Rocking Boat Tour'. With two options including a 2day/1night and 3day/2night, they have options for all budgets and time frames, but I chose the longer tour. Included in the price ($139.99) I would receive all transport to Ha Long from Hanoi, one nights accommodation on a Vietnamese junk boat as well as a night on 'Castaway Island', including all meals (total of 7), as well as kayaking around Ha Long Bay plus a choice of one adrenaline fuelled activity on Castaway Island.

    After breakfast (free to guests of Hanoi Backpacker Hostel) we leave the Hanoi at 8am on a convoy of minibuses heading towards Bai Chay, and Ha Long City. Most people catch up on sleep after the earlier than normal wake up call, where as some are starting the party early with a bag of chilled beers to get warmed up.

    Arriving at the tourist wharf we are ferried across the harbour to a pair of large Vietnamese junks, where we will spend our first night. Once everyone is on board and we set sail, lunch is served; catering for every taste the Vietnamese family style meal includes fried rice, noodles, fried vegetables, tofu dishes, chicken, fresh fruits and more.

    After lunch, as the beer began to flow, we near our anchor point for the evening. The large cove is dominated by the towering limestone skyscrapers that make 'Ha Long' famous. The water is warm, clear and calm, and is beckoning us to jump in. The 'Junk', based on the ancient Chinese cargo ships' consist of three decks; the lowest deck is for sleeping, the middle contains the bar and restaurant, and the open top deck is for sunbathing. And from the top you have a 30ft plunge into the refreshing water below.

    Although there is a fully stocked bar on the boat, prices are considerably higher than the rest of Vietnam, with beers costing upwards of 25,000 Dong ($1.25, 85p) and mixers ranging from 30-40,000 Dong ($1.50-2, 1-1.30). This may not seem expensive to someone on a two week holiday, but it is a lot of money for a long term traveller, and will add up after a heavy night of drinking games. So I do recommend sneaking your own contraband on board (especially bottled water), or buying a couple of cheaper supplies from one of the floating shops that paddle around the bay selling their goods. Typically you can flag them down outside your bedroom window, and be prepared for some hard haggling.

    After a good afternoon of swan diving and cannon balls we head across to a nearby floating village where we collect an armada of kayaks. With over 1,600 permanent inhabitants living in this labyrinth, you will find many of these communities floating on their own personal islands. The vast majority are fish farmers, keeping their catch alive in specially built pens spread across their home, but you will also find a number of pearl farmers cultivating these sought after items of jewellery.

    We spend the remainder of the day paddling around this magical place, exploring caves and grottos, before enjoying one of the most beautiful sunset I have yet experienced. The colours reflecting off the shimmering water, and the dark silhouettes from the large spires that dwarfed us. Eventually as my supply of beers drew short, and darkness settled in, we made our way back to the island, and returned to the boat.

    Later that evening after another great meal, the party really began to kick off. The tour guide and 'Party Guru', Josh, who looked like the wrong side of a 3 month long hangover, kicked off the first of many humiliating drinking games as well as opening up the happy hour. To sum up the evening it would include cross dressing, nudity, man-on-man kissing, face licking, dirty confessions, and insane amounts of alcohol consumption (and that is just what happened to me!). International drinking rules were also in play, meaning consumption of an alcoholic beverage are only permitted with the left hand, and penalty for right hand drinking was to consume your entire drink. Because of this I became a 'Buffalo' (the word you call if you spot people fowling) assassin, causing many full drinks to be downed unwillingly.

Castaway Island - Day Two

    After a heavy night the day before, the 7.30 am wake up call was not a welcome sign. It was only the breakfast that made it remotely bearable, as everyone bore the signs of a over-indulged evening. After breakfast we transferred to another smaller boat, called the Minnow, which would take us to 'Castaway Island'. Although the water was relatively calm, the boat did have a gentle rock  which wasn't great on our uneasy stomachs, but I managed to hold it together.
    Castaway Island, located in Lan Ha Bay, is Hanoi Backpacker's own private island hidden in the depths of Ha Long Bay and shadowed by towering limestone cliffs. This relaxed paradise is the perfect place to nurse your growing hangover before another evening of drunken madness. The first thing you will see on the island will be the bar and restaurant area, before delving deeper into the trees where you will find the beach huts where you will spend the night. Sleeping on the bamboo platforms, under the palm leaf roof, you are close enough to the water to hear the waves gently lap against the white sands as you drift off.

    With no sense of urgency, people spend the day chilling in the water, snoozing in the hammocks, and generally doing nothing. After the best nap I have ever had, I grab one of the kayaks that litter the beach and take a leisurely paddle around the bay before heading back to the island for lunch.

    Included in the price of the tour you get the chance to choose to take part in one activity, including wake-boarding, water-skiing, tubing, and rock climbing. I decide to opt for the tubing which entails being towed behind a speedboat on one of two air filled floats. Taking corners at high speed, you bounce over the wakes cast out from the boat, whilst holding on for dear life. Eventually the centrifugical force gets the better of you, casting you outwards, bouncing along the surface of the water like a skipping pebble; my best was 5 painful skims off the surface.

    Later that evening, after yet another meal, the drunken fun started once more, continuing much along the same pattern as the previous night, eventually culminating into a late night swim in the sea among the ocean phosphorescence. This underwater 'Avatar' style light show is caused by agitating the microscopic plankton that inhabit the water, causing them to release a memorizing blue light. Swimming in the water becomes a psychedelic experience, with every movement leaving a short trail of blue glow, and catching water in my beard leaves a burst of light when I resurface.

Castaway Island - Day 3

    After another late drunken night, the morning GONG! to signal breakfast rang like a stampede of elephant through the island. We grab breakfast before catching the transfer boat back to the Junk that returns us to Ha Long harbour. By this time, the last two days of hard partying had finally taken there toll, with people able to do little more than sleep on he way back. Our return to the hostel was a welcome sign, as it meant the chance for a hot shower, air conditioned bedroom, and no more drinking games.

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