Majestic Halong Bay!

Trip Start Jun 15, 2011
Trip End Jun 01, 2012

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Where I stayed
Monkey Island Resort
Asia Cruise Junk boat

Flag of Vietnam  ,
Friday, November 18, 2011

For ages now we have both really wanted to go to Halong bay having seen it on travel TV programmes and read about it in books and online. This was then boosted by the recommendations of a couple of friends that have been and the best top gear episode ever where they traveled up the coast of Vietnam on mopeds. While we've been away Halong bay has been named one of the new 7 natural wonders of the world so to say we were looking forward to going, is perhaps a bit of an understatement. For me this was the one thing I wanted to do most whilst on our trip, and for Katy it was Angkor Wat.
Actually choosing how you go to Halong bay is a bit of a headache. It is possible to go completely on your own but it can be a bit difficult and expensive and it is recommended that you go on a tour. However, there are so many tour Companies, hotels and cafes that all sell tours to Halong bay for various prices ranging from $40 to hundreds of dollars and so you could easily be completely ripped off. For example a particular Cafe might sell you exactly the same trip as a hotel but at 50% more cost and you would end up on a boat having paid more than everyone else for exactly the same thing. Having heard that people have wasted whole days trying to find a tour, we just did the lazy thing and booked with our hotel who described a tour within our budget which looked pretty good. The only problem is that we booked it in a different city so in my mind there lingered the possibility that when we got to Hanoi (where the tour started) they would refuse to accept my crumpled hand-written receipt as a ticket to one of the world's 7 natural wonders. Anyway, we quickly put that out of our minds and with our tour booked we could just look forward to the trip.

On the morning that we were due to leave we waited downstairs in the hotel with our shoddy piece of paper with 4 other people who were also waiting for a Halong Bay tour. However, before long they all were picked up and we were left waiting there anxiously as our departure time came and went. Just as we began to give up hope, a guy came running in to the hotel with a list and a group of disgruntled looking tourists following behind him. We continued to do a walking bus tour of the hotels in the centre of Hanoi before eventually boarding the bus, and to actually see a bus was a big relief. Not only was this tour real but there is actually a driver and a bus that will take us there.

Whilst we've been away I have discovered something new about Katy. It turns out that whilst finding a good seat is a big strength, saving me one is not! Every time I say "I'll sort the bags out, you go and save a seat" I will get on the bus or into the train station and she'll be sat with some random person next to her and I will have to go find a seat somewhere else. I think I need to take the hint that she may be trying to escape from me! 

So despite sitting on opposite ends of the bus, we were on our way and really excited about going to Halong bay. It is quite a long way between Hanoi and Halong city but the journey was beautiful as we were driving past farming fields being worked in by hundreds of people in their conical hats. You could see people ploughing the field manually or with the help of water buffalo and the views were stunning. The country houses we could see were quite interesting as almost all of them seem to be very narrow with a big door at the front. They are made of concrete and go back quite far as if all of their rooms are lined up in a long row. They look a bit like a garage where you park your cars one behind the other and having seen how many people fit in a car it made me wonder how many people would live in one of these houses

After around 3 hours or so we arrived at the dock in Halong City and boarded our junk boat which was to be our home for the next couple of days. There were around 15 people on the tour and it was a really nice group of people. Everyone was up for having a laugh and that makes a big difference when you're on these tours.  We had a double room with en-suite and a big window so that you could look at the bay from your room. Our boat was an Asian Cruise Junk with a big dragon at the front and had around 10 rooms, a big dining area and a sun deck with sun loungers at the top... it was awesome! 

We set off and sailed into Halong bay and it actually managed to exceed our already high expectations. Within the bay there are just less than 2000 islands jutting out from the sea so when you are in the middle of the bay it feels like you are surrounded by mountains in every direction as these island peaks tower over you. After lunch on the boat we visited one of the islands to see a cave that was discovered there by fisherman about 20 years ago and then went kayaking around a few small islands and a floating village. It was amazing to see people living in floating villages and even having pet dogs. We saw a couple taking their boat headed for the mainland for a night out in Halong City and somehow it seemed too normal an activity for people who live in a floating village. It was brilliant to be able to just go and explore on a kayak and it gives you a different impression of the scale of the bay and the size of all of the islands. The sun started to set whilst we were kayaking through one of the bays and it was so beautiful, it would have been very romantic had there not been 20 other kayakers crashing into each other at the same time.

After a bit of swimming we sailed back through the bay to a spot where every other Junk boat was moored up for the night. Apparently there are pirates in Halong bay so every boat stays together in an area they can control. The entertainment on the junk boat consisted of my favourite thing ever, Karaoke! They announced that we'd have Karaoke in the evening expecting a big cheer and got more of a sigh. Vietnamese people love Karaoke and you find enormous karaoke bars all over the place, I have to say though that I am yet to hear a Vietnamese person who can sing.... just like UK Karaoke I guess. It was probably a good thing that they love it though as the only other person who loved Karaoke on our boat was a girl from the Czech republic and as soon as they turned the machine on she had written down 5 songs in a row that she wanted to sing, all of which were cheesy English ballads which she proceeded to murder painfully one after another. Then when no-one else wanted to sing the staff took over and sang Vietnamese songs for the rest of the night. So that was a bit of a cultural education for us!

On the second day of the tour we went to Cat Ba island which is a world heritage site and we went cycling to visit another cave. At first I was a bit skeptical, "ahh, another cave!" but this one was completely different. It is called the hospital cave and was built during the war by the Viet Cong. There were a large number of Viet Cong based on Cat Ba island and so the Americans sent a lot of bombers there during the war. In order to have somewhere safe to go they then built this hospital within a cave and it is still in tact today so we could see all the rooms where the patients went, where they kept the medicine and where they washed. There were 3 floors and on the second floor was a big natural cave where they had a cinema, swimming pool and an area where the soldiers could train. It was a really fascinating place and so different to the other caves we've been to on our trip.
In the afternoon we sailed to Monkey Island where we stayed the night in air-conditioned bungalows. The island was absolutely stunning and had a long beach and a big bar but that was about it. They had a pool table, table tennis table and Foosball table but we couldn't use any of them because the football was on TV, Vietnam were playing Indonesia and so the staff deserted us and took over all of the facilities to watch the game. Clearly these things weren't built for us, or at least the staff didn't think so. The guys watching the game were more football mad than people back home and any time a Vietnamese player had the ball in the opposition's half would jump out of their seats and shout at the TV.

Before ending our trip we got to sail around Halong bay for a bit longer and take a few more photos. I'm happy to say that Halong Bay really didn't disappoint, and I'm glad we have been there now as with the number of tourists who go there I suspect it will be ruined before too long. Vietnam haven't quite grasped the concept of responsible tourism and it's much more about getting the biggest numbers and the most money possible! 

So now we head for the northern mountains of Vietnam, not too far from the Chinese border.
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Ann on

This place looks really awesome.

xxxcharlene on

so beautiful - i really like the photo of all the junks as well :-)xxx

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