Halong Bay- the end of Vietnam

Trip Start Aug 18, 2010
Trip End Aug 31, 2011

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Flag of Vietnam  , Quảng Ninh,
Monday, December 24, 2012

With great anticipation I boarded my awfully early bus for the trip to the coast from Hanoi to Halong Bay. The minibus was pretty crammed as many Western tourists had packed plenty of suitcases which seemed out of place after weeks of backpacks, but Halong Bay, being the attraction and world heritage site that it is, attracts all sort and in particular a lot of older travelers who were having their Christmas break. The three hour journey was not that eventful aside from the usual road madness that the Vietnamese call "driving" with plenty of near misses and the obvious newbie travelers to Vietnam gripping- white knuckled to their arm rests or spouses or the few even filming the nausea inducing swerving and missing of oncoming traffic on their phone so they can recall the stories when they return home.

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. My group was assembled, and it appeared there not many other single or independent travelers on my boat but families clustered together: one from France and two extended families from Korea; the signs of a party boat were not evident (thankfully) but some life would have been nice.

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 upper deck although not in the best condition was pleasant and had some sun deck chairs and 360 degree views of our surroundings which at the time was an armada of boats leaving the harbor and setting out in a race towards our shared destination. The main dining area was also very nice and had a bar and TV screens for karaoke- I'm pretty sure the most remote places of Asia will still have Karaoke. We had a great lunch, and I was grouped with the French family, who consisted of a well travelled couple and their two girls and two sets of parents. They became my Christmas adopted family for the trip and with some broken English and French we got on very well. Rather them than the one Korean family who barely spoke a word to anyone let alone themselves.

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. As a side note before I came to Halong Bay so many fellow travelers and friends had told me the place was beautiful but spoilt by the amount of litter and oil but thankfully I didn’t see too much of this, maybe the tides were in my favour or some serious cleanup had been done as the place was pristine and sunny by the time I arrived.

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 alien internal landscape is quite the sight and only a lonely bat circling above indicated any life besides the moving human line of happy snappers. We made our way back to out boat and headed offshore slightly, but still well placed among the looming limestone peaks as we were tied to a nearby docking station and given the chance to head out and go kayaking in the bay. As everyone paired up , I asked If I could go out on my own, which I could, an spent the next hour or so exploring the surprisingly warm waters and shorelines nearby before heading back to the boat as the sun started to fade. It was incredibly peaceful and mesmerizing to be in such a place. We were given time to shower and relax before dinner and then given the news that the crew and manager had planned to have a special Xmas celebration that evening for us later that night for anyone that was interested. They agreed a time of about 10pm to try and see in Xmas day itself, and it would also offer the parents time to get their kids to bed before joining the festivities. So after another fantastic dinner, some people opted to try their hand at some squid fishing, but after my previous failure at that I decided on a nap before the Xmas eve party. We were also one of the few boats in the largely dark bay to have a Christmas tree with sparkling lights. I have spent the 24- 25th December in a few different places in my time, but Halong Bay is definitely one of the more memorable. So after a much needed sleep, I made my way to the main lounge/dinner area and was blown away by the spread the crew had put out as well as the decorations and the skill in crafting some of the food on display. Sadly for all of the effort of the crew, the guests seemed largely uninterested and boring despite the best effort of the crew. Thankfully I had spent a bit of time with them and took their photos with the spread which included hand carved roses from Watermelons, Pineapple sculpted birds and coconut doves which the chef took hours to create, it was amazing, As the families went to bed, myself and the crew and the French couple enjoyed some drinks and chatted till just after midnight and which time we called it a night, with more interesting and interactive guests the night could have been more fun but the crew was great.

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. The small island had a small number of bungalows and a restaurant with a soccer beach in front. We were grouped into out bungalows, I was sharing with a English guy who leads an interesting life moving around the world, mainly in developing nations to setup the exchange and volunteer programs and we got on well as we both enjoyed travel and sports (Liverpool fans too). We were given the choice of heading to Monkey Island which was only a 30-40 minute boat ride away or stay on the island. As I had opted for 2 nights instead of the common one, I decided to go and explore the Monkey Island.

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. The monkeys became increasingly hostile though and eventually the tourists armed themselves with stones from the beach and pelted the monkeys when they attacked, all the while the guides carried on gambling. There was even a massive fight between 20-30 of the monkeys which I partially got on film.

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. After some time catching some small unidentifiable fish and cruising in the pretty flat waters I decided to try kayak around the small looking island which was home to our bungalows. As I ventured around the bends to explore some local floating fishing villages I realized that the island was not as small as I thought but that I would pursue my goal. Even though I was probably a few hours in already I wasn’t overly tired until I reached what I thought was the last stretch but this side of the island was effectively the windy side so suddenly I was kayaking into a strong headwind which was increasing, and waves that were becoming more of a battle. For the first time I was getting a little worried and that maybe I had bitten off more than I could chew in my battle against the elements and I started doubting myself but after a struggle for a quite some time I came through the worst of it and all of a sudden was sheltered from the winds and saw the safety of the pier and the bungalows, so I headed in, kept the tale to myself and took a much needed rest after the near 5 hour kayak!

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). It was such a fun night and we ended up drinking til pretty late with one guy in particular wanting to not leave me alone and although he had no English insisted through a translator that we have breakfast. So after a heavyish night I was up at 6AM and joined him for breakfast and of course he still insisted on a shot of rice wine, egh.  It was fun though and they were such great people that I’m glad I joined in before my long trip back to Halong Bay. The whole time was amazing and I will struggle to top my festive season next year!

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. Now the discounted taxi fare seemed to make more sense as this was obviously a friend on the way home from a night out, but after a final Vietnam near road death experience I safely arrived at the airport and checked through unscathed for my flight to my next stop and first time in Malaysia.

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.

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