Halong Bay- the end of Vietnam
Trip Start Aug 18, 2010
53Trip End Aug 31, 2011
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The docks at Halong Bay were understandably swamped with tour busses and tourists with all manner of flags/colours and scream being used by their tour group leaders t keep groups together and organized
We collected out tickets, made our way through the packed turnstiles and made our way along the pier, jam packed with similar looking Junker boats which also confusingly had similar names. Our boat was called the Imperial Junker, although I counted about a half dozen other boats with names that were pretty similar to ours- largely I would assume to avoid and confuse the poor reviews tech savvy travelers give on sites such as Tripadvisor. We boarded and were greeted by our friendly and merry manager who proved to be a pleasure throughout my stay. As we were given the safety guidelines and the introductions I was shown my cabin, which thankfully was a cabin of my own as I been told I would be sharing- the benefits of solo travel once again. Our tour guide had cracked a joke that maybe we should share as she would otherwise sleep among the crew on converted benches, thing is you never quite know when they are joking…..
The cabin was actually really nice and we were left to explore the boat before a group lunch
The journey out towards and past the numerous iconic limestone islands (karsts) towards Cat Ba Island was beautiful and reminded me of the Sounds in New Zealand but now on a much larger scale and with dozens more boats to boot. The variety of islands in terms of shape and size was astounding as well as the resourcefulness of the floating fishing villages that live out in between the sheltered coves and bays amongst the islands. Of course some of the daunting narrow passages offer fantastic photo opportunities and many of the funnily shaped islands have been given names to amuse the tourists and with the squint of the eye and a tilt of the head and some imagination some of the animal names shapes can be made out
The first main stop after cruising for a few hours was at the Dau Go Cave (Cave of Wonders). Many other boats had also stopped and we joined the throng of tourists as we made our way up the many stairs towards the caves entrance and behind us a beautiful sight as the steamers all parkd in the small bays turquoise waters with the islands in the backdrop. Once we had reached the caves entrance we were amazed at the size of the place. The sequence of caves only got larger and more beautiful (the well placed lights assisting in this) and walkways although busy with people has enough space if you dared venture away from the groups and explore partially on your own. We were told that as busy as it was it was nothing compared to peak summer and peak tourists season and also nowhere near as hot. As the yellow, red and green lit cave’s natural designs were illuminated, people jostled for positions to get a photo with the beautiful backdrops. The caves took a good half an hour to walk thought, with plenty of stops, but they are by far the biggest I had ever been in and held a lot of history as they have been used for centuries for people to hide in during times of conflict
The next morning after a delayed start with the families opening xmas gifts we enjoyed a hearty breakfast and then set for Cat Ba island to enjoy some mountain biking and a short trek through the jungle of the Cat Ba National Park. The bicycle ride was fantastic, along steep roads and crystal waters leading through rural countryside and past jungle ending at a small village called Viet Hai where we walked through the humid jungle for a short while before taking the ride back to the boat. I couldn’t have imagined a more special place for Christmas morning.
In the late morning we arrived at what would be my home for two nights at Sandy Beach resort
Only a few of us decided to go and I hung out with a guy from San Francisco as we made it ashore to the small island with its one large café/Bungalow. Most of the other tourists were spread along the beach collecting shells and taking photos of the monkeys that were present at the far end of the beach but all of the guides quickly settled into some form gambling, as they seem to do throughout Vietnam. Soon enough the monkeys numbers started increasing and the few that had been settled in by the café, apparently having had a few beers and sodas bought to them by tourist started getting aggressive and launching attacks at anyone who had any drink or food, the most hilarious example was a newlywed couple when a monkey lunged at the wife’s soda and she screamed and ran behind her startled husband and when the monkey backed off, the wife screamed at her young husband as to why he didn’t protect her
Afterwards myself and the American guy were bought back to Sandy Beach and as the only two guests staying there from the group that went to Monkey island, we were put on a local fishing boat and taken back which was pretty cool. That afternoon some of us guests played Frisbee and then got into a game of soccer on the beach which was exhausting and the staff joined in for a great game as everyone else settled into the bar and supported from the sidelines. It was great fun and we only stopped when it became too dark to see. After a shower we had a massive BBQ feast and beers and then enjoyed a bonfire on the beach, which to us seemed like a special Christmas occasion but on reality was a matter of routine for the staff. We stayed up till quite late stoking the fire to massive heights and eventually went to bed, but it was a incredible Christmas day in Halong Bay.
The next morning, most of the guests left quite early to head back, but as one of the few to have opted to stay on an extra night, I headed out with a handheld fishing reel and some bait and went kayaking
That afternoon, the next shipload of tourists came ashore but I kept to myself and come dinnertime I joined the staff rather than eat with the tourists and had a great time. I was invited to join them in drinking their rice wine and eating some of their food which was different to the tourist BBQ and before long we had broken conversations, photos and were swapping jackets and well as being offered the local women for marriage (in jest)
Once back at Hanoi after the boat ride and bus trip, I was hoping for a quick check in and a rest before flying out the next morning to Kuala Lumpur. Of course once I returned to my hotel they claimed to be full, evidence again of their poor service and grudge that I hadn’t booked through them, but they offered an alternative nearby hotel. I quite happily checked in at the other hotel asked for a good final meal recommendation and was directed towards some of the best food I had in Hanoi before heading to bed and booking a taxi for my early flight.
I had a good sleep and then ventured downstairs at 5am for my taxi to find the taxi driver arrive in an unmarked car – not always a good sign- and on coming closer to the driver could smell the stink of alcohol which raised some alarms
Vietnam surpassed my expectations and it’s a place full of adventure and filled with great people if you meet the right ones. The North is completely different to the South but the entire place has an appeal. I hope to come back one day soon and explore more of the place and even work here.