Birthday on the Bay

Trip Start Sep 09, 2011
Trip End Jun 29, 2012

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Where I stayed
Onboard the AClass Opera
What I did
Ha Long Bay
Aclass Opera Cruise
Cherry Island
Cat Ba Island
Titop Island
Huo Cuong Cave

Flag of Vietnam  , Quảng Ninh,
Saturday, November 5, 2011

Before we had even left the UK we had decided that for both our birthday's (my 30th, gulp, and Bec's 29th) we would make sure that we were doing something really nice, and we had planned to be in Ha Long Bay for mine. So, early on the morning of the 5th November we were picked up by minibus and driven to Ha Long City in order to catch our boat.

En-route there was an interesting stop at an Arts and Craft Centre selling work that had been made by young people affected by Agent Orange. Even thought the Vietnam War is long over the impact of chemical warfare in the country is still having an impact on new life. Children are still born with disabilities and mental impairments, and young men and women are left with various medical problems such as liver disease and infertility. The Artwork was impressive, and some of the embroidery work in particular was really beautiful.

Our tour guide was called Cuong (which means power apparently) and he was brilliant: very funny and happy to go out of his way to be helpful. He also tried to lighten the mood about the fact that as we drove there it was RAINING... not what we had ordered at all. 

As we arrived it had started to dry up a bit fortunately, and by the time the smaller boat had transported us to the large junk boat we would be staying on it was actually starting to get brighter. The mistiness also gave the bay a sort of ghostly 'Pirates of the Caribbean' quality as large stony islands suddenly appeared out of the grey while we sailed along.

There are about 3000 limestone islands (although this number changed depending on who was talking to you, so I am dubious about the number... let's just say 'a lot') that rise up out of the bay (the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin) which is a mixture of fresh and salt water. This is apparently what gives it the beautiful turquoise-blue colour as the two waters mix. Ha Long means 'Where the dragon descends into the sea' and legend says that the islands were created by a dragon that lived in the mountains. We didn't see him, but perhaps he was on holiday.

On our first afternoon we went to a little beach on Cherry Island, jumping off the boat to swim towards the white sand. It was really peaceful, and the water was beautiful. November is not really touristy season, so we were really lucky to have the whole area to ourselves.

We continued on after an hour of floating around in the cool water to a floating village on the bay. There are a few of these, mostly arranged for fishing trade, and the homes are collected together, floating mostly on large pieces of polystyrene! We were taken in a bamboo boat around the area, and because of the time of year we were able to reach a cave leading through to an enclosed lake area that they apparently filmed a James Bond film in... No idea which one. You can't always reach it when the water is high, so that was pretty cool. Just like when we were on the river to Perfume Pagoda many women were doing the rowing, and they also rowed forwards, but this time they had a kind of gap to stand in, so at least they could put their weight into it!

Once we got back to the boat the sun had gone down and we got to jump off the back of the boat and swim in the moonlight. It really was incredible... Only slightly spoiled as it got very dark by these little fish that actually jumped across the water like little jumping torpedo's and started trying to nibble us. Bec had very wisely already got out of the water by then, but the rest of us swimming had to suddenly make a bit of a scramble to get out!

Dinner, like lunch, and in fact every meal we had on the whole trip, was outstanding... they just kept bringing food out... loads of seafood, LOADS of rice... loads of everything. Mmmmm. Cuong introduced dinner and then rather humiliatingly made everyone on the boat (about 40 of us) sing happy birthday. After dinner I was also presented withe some flowers and a special birthday cocktail. Oh, the embarrassment. I felt very exposed, but it was a very sweet thing to do. Evening was finished off with a bit of karaoke on the boat, which was fun.

Waking up on 6th November was an interesting experience. I didn't quite know how I would feel... landmark birthday away from friends and family... but in all honesty I didn't really feel anything much, apart from tired! It was an early start!

Had some birthday toblerone to start the day, naturally, and then went up for actual breakfast... and this was the start of what can only be described as a perfect day...

We transferred with an awesome group of people onto a smaller boat, and went out towards Cat Ba Island for some kayaking. We did some more swimming in the crystalline waters, we sunbathed (it was a glorious day), we ate amazing lunch... we hung out. It was so, so relaxing. 

The boat then headed off towards Titop Island, passing another floating village. This one had been started in the early 2000's and already had a population of about 400. Both the floating villages we saw in fact had floating schools for the children that had been born there since they started... they were denoted by a little Vietnamese flag flying from the apex.

Titop Island provided us with the most incredible view of the bay and some of the many boats that were sailing on it that day. We had a hot, dusty walk to the top of the hill, but the reward was fairly amazing. On returning down to the private beach at the base of the hill we were able to wash off the grime and watch the sun as it lowered towards the water.

As we watched the sun go down over Ha Long Bay from the smaller boat we all sat quietly. It really had been a perfect day for everyone. This perfection was slightly marred by being stung by what appeared to be jellyfish tentacles when swimming off the back of the boat just before dinner, but the welts went down within a few hours thankfully.

We met some really cool people on the boat, and two of them, Ned and Saskia, joined me and a very sleepy looking member of the crew for Tai Chi at 6am the following morning. The 'instructor' appeared to be wearing his pj's and I wondered whether he had been kicked awake seconds before the 'class' in order to teach us. It was a really nice way to start the day though, and how many people can say they have woken up to do Tai Chi on Ha Long Bay?

We went to visit Hoa Cuong Cave before we left, which was really impressive. One of it's most famed attractions is a, ummm, a phallus shaped stalagmite, which they have thoughtfully and 'tastefully' lit with bright red lights. Not exactly the most inspiring part of the cave in all honesty.

Too soon we were heading back to Hanoi after a genuinely brilliant few days. Ha Long Bay is now one of favourite places.

* A few days later Ha Long Bay was voted one of the new UNESCO 7 Natural Wonders of the World. Well deserved.

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