Halong time in the making

Trip Start Aug 04, 2011
Trip End Jan 04, 2012

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Halong Dragon Junk

Flag of Vietnam  ,
Saturday, September 10, 2011

This place has been on my mind for a couple of years now. As an avid Top Gear fan, the Vietnam special is one of my favourites with the finale of the episode ending with the team taking their mopeds they have travelled up the country on and converting them into boats to allow them to traverse Halong Bay's karst outcrops to one of the floating fishing villages. The TV has a habit of making things look awe-inspiring. It couldn't possibly be like that.

I have done a lot of reading about Halong Bay cruises. The only way to see all the formations. There are lots of Junk ships, lots of options on the quality of the tour and therefore always a lot of tourists doing the same thing. I've read reviews of not being able to see the formations through the murky fog and inevitable rain, and the junks being overpriced. Whether it be through sheer luck or a bit of clever judgment or a combination of both, I think we saw Halong just how it should be seen.

We paid a bit more for our cruise - it worked out as $109 each for 4 meals, an overnight stay on the boat, a cave tour and a couple of hours swimming ad kayaking from the boat. This was a good choice.

As we pulled into Halong, the heavens opened - apocalyptic. Horrendous. We couldn't see the road in front of us, let alone the Karst formations. We jumped off the bus and into the harbour area and it all gets a little chaotic. At about lunchtime, there are loads of people coming off the boats (all at the same time), and loads of people going onto the boats (all at the same time). We just watched our guide like a hawk so we didn't lose him. Jumping onto a little clipper boat, we boarded the Halong Dragon in the harbour climbing over the railing as the two boats rocked side by side in the driving rain.
Straight inside for a half inch deep glass of juice as a welcome drink (not very welcoming but better than nothing), we were given our cabin keys and asked to check in before lunch. Our cabin was lovely- just behind the bar, and with a little en-suite shower room. After placing our bits and pieces we put on our Kagouls to look out over the ocean. No much there though except rain and more rain.

Lunch was a selection of sea-foods and vegetables, all coated in a healthy covering of oil. I sampled some of their mussel like things which were very nice but seriously unlike my tastes - this trip is good for me in that respect. The drinks prices were no where near what we were expecting. Typical prices were $2 for a can of beer, $15 for a bottle of wine. Expensive in Hanoi and Vietnam, yes - Expensive on a cruise boat - No. We realised this was going to be a costly trip and didn't really think paying a few dollars for beer was all that bad. If you don't want to drink and pay those sought of prices - don't drink. No-one forces you. Bottles of water come in at $1.

Then at last, we moved and the boat set sail (or the generator turned on and started pumping out diesel fumes as the case may be), it didn't matter, we were moving. And as if someone had just flicked a switch at that point - the rains stopped and the skies cleared. Within minutes the deck was dry, we were laying on the sunbeds, and then we were taking in the view of the Karst spectacle before us. What a view. Worth it - just for this.

The rest for me was just a bonus. A great little cave tour with our tour guide pointing out funny formations, a canoe session from one of the floating fishing pontoons with Kate where we took our little canoe off around one of the outcrops and into open sea, and an hour jumping from the ship into the sea with a couple of Dutch people we had started talking to after getting back from the canoes. It took Kate a while to jump from the boat and swim in the water as the tour guide had mentioned jellyfish. At that point, Kate's excitement about swimming disappeared into a horrendous fear.

Once all dried off, showered and after an enjoyable, if not spectacular buffet dinner - Kate tried her hand at squid fishing but just ended up chasing a crab around the water with the rod and I got involved with an older Australian couple and an Englishman called Gordon on the karaoke TV. Kate joined us and we sang badly to lift style music with karaoke words. Very good fun, when you allow yourself to have it. The oldies that we were with were a little obsessed with singing Elvis songs and the Vietnamese barman was a little obsessed with hogging the mic and singing Viet songs - but our quiet odd little party was excellent. The party junks across the bay appeared to be having more of a "woohoo", "lets rock" type of time, but we enjoyed ourselves and could sleep quite happily.
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