After an early flight from Hue to Hanoi, to avoid the 14 hour bus ride, we went straight to our hotel, and dropped our bags. We were on a mission: book a trip to Halong Bay.
After doing some comparison shopping, we selected an Australian outfit that we had heard good things about (even after we had a truly obnoxious conversation with the ex-pat owner of the tour company who tried to convince us that major US banks literally don't know where Vietnam is, and that credit card fraud is epidimic in Vietnam, but even worse in the US). The tour was three days and two nights and a bit of a splurge, with all meals, trips, and overnight on the boat included.
The next morning we met the 14 other people on our trip - a mish-mash of Western nationalities, including some Dutch, Australians, Canadians, a Brit, an Israeli, a German, some fellow Americans, and Kiwis. Everyone was very nice and friendly. Tao, our tour guide, was soft spoken and well-versed on a wide variety of information about Vietnam, and through the course of the trip he proved extremely helpful and interested in learning as much about us as we learned from him.
We boarded a bus that took us to Halong City, the jumping off point for tours to the bay and a true madhouse. Confused tourists hurried in all directions to follow their guides to a variety of tour
boats - some luxurious and some seeming to barely stay afloat. But the craziness faded as soon as we got on our boat, and we realized that we were in for a truly relaxing trip.
The boat is modeled after a Chinese junk (though modified to include a motor), with elaborate wood finishings and gorgeous details. The bottom level of the boat held 8 cabins, each with hot water bathroom and air conditioning, while the upper deck was the restaurant/lounge as well as a sun deck, the best place for sitting and watching the scenery go by while on the cruise. Immediately, we were treated to a multi-course lunch full of just-caught seafood, and as we wrapped up the boat slid out from the port, into Halong Bay.
Because so many people had told us how much they loved Halong Bay, we set our expectations low, worried that it had been overhyped. But within a few moments of entering the bay, each of us decided that it was one of the most beautiful places either of us have ever been. The perfectly flat water is pierced with clusters of thousands of limestone islands of various sizes, rising out of the bay at incredibly vertical angles, creating picturesque scenery in every direction. Many of the islands are said to look like different animals, although it became a running joke on the boat that everything looks like a chicken, since half the time Tao told us that what what particularly formations were named after.
That afternoon, we spent a few hours under beautiful skies, cruising through patches of islands, enjoying the unbelievable tranquility of the glassy bay. We made our way past small floating villages, which were really rafts connecting by walkways. Every so often, small rowboats would approach from these settlements, selling beer and soda to the passing tours. After a few hours, we docked in a small bay to go to a relatively touristy cavern, referred to as the
Cave". Given that we have seen fairly spectacular caves elsewhere, we didn't find the cave particularly amazing, but it was still fun to explore the three chambers of increasing dimensions, as well as a gorgeous view to the bay below.
We then rejoined our boat and cruised to a swimming place. About two-thirds of the group jumped off the roof of the boat into the sea about 10 meters below and had a blast floating in the salty, serene, warm water. That is, we enjoyed it for about six minutes UNTIL ONE OF OUR FELLOW TRAVELLERS GOT STUNG BY AN ENORMOUS JELLYFISH THAT HE HAD TO RIP FROM HIS ARM and we all made a hasty exit from the water. Seeing his swelling, and his spasms, and his vomitting, we decided to refrain from swimming for the rest of the trip. After we returned to the boat, Tao sheepishly explained that yes, actually, it was jellyfish season - and sure enough, for the rest of the trip we realized that the sea was absolutely chock-full of stealthy white jellyfish about a meter long with quite a nasty - but fortunately not lethal - sting.
With swimming no longer a particularly attractive option, we then cruised to one of the two authorized "parking lots" of the bay. As we docked, we could see other boats approaching and docking on all sides, and as as the sun set and the the power on the other boats went on, the twinkling lights of our neighbors provided a romantic and beautiful ending to the day. The peacefulness of the bay, combined with the incredible meal served to us on the boat and the fact that we had slept only a few hours the night before meant that we were asleep that night as soon as our heads hit the pillows in our cozy room.
The next morning, we were served a simple but tasty breakfast and then headed with the boat to
island, by far the largest island in the bay, and drove across it to visit a cave at the other end. The scenery of Cat Ba is spectacular, with jagged hills and mini-mountains covered by lush forest. Like the first cave we visited, the second cave was uninspiring, and after that we headed to Cat Ba town for an incredible meal at a local restaurant. We spent a couple minutes walking around the town, and had a funny exchange with a shop-owner, who could not get over Jordan's two day's worth of stubble. The man kept rubbing his own face, and then pointing at Jordan's, until the three of us were all laughing. We're still not sure what was going on.
Next, we took a small boat to "Monkey Island", named after the cranky creatures that inhabit it. Despite the fact that every publication and person associated with Monkey Island warns against getting too close to or feeding the monkeys, we watched with amusement as other tourists got way too close to the little beasts, flirting with disaster. As we watched, the monkeys began exploring a broken window in the second floor of a shop on the island, and before getting noticed by the shop keeper they had launched a full-on raid, devouring a half dozen cans of Red Bull and beer, as well as a number of packets of ramen noodles. Upon realizing that her store was under attack, the shopkeeper flew into a rage, flying up the stairs into the waiting claws of an irritated, nasty, and particularly irritable monkey, who hopped on her head and began pulling her hair. Screaming, the woman tore at the monkey, reached down, pulled of her shoe, and hurled the shoe at the monkey, who couldn't care less. She threw her her other shoe at another monkey, chased the rest out of her store, cleaned out the empty cans, and patched up the hole in the window with a totally ineffective piece of cardboard and walked away. The monkeys returned within minutes, and were breaking through the window patch as we got back aboard our boat. It was all very exciting!
That evening, we enjoyed our second and last dinner on the boat, which was even better than the first, and docked for the night at the same location as the night before. We didn't sleep quite as well that night given that our fellow Americans decided to have a party on the top deck that involved heavy bass that reverberated throughout the boat, but we awoke again to breakfast, a cruise to a small island called Titop (after a Soviet cosmonaut who visted in the 60's), and then a return cruise to the Halong dock, where we disembarked and were treated to our last meal, at a local hotel. We then boarded a bus to Hanoi, feeling rested and relaxed, once again ready to tackle a busy, sweaty city.
Halong Bay is a traveller's dream - an incredibly beautiful respite from the fatique and challenge of travel. It is truly breathtaking, with one view better than the next, meaning that it will take us quite a while to cull through the endless digital photos we couldn't help taking in pursuit of the perfect picture. Although the ones we are posting here on this website simply cannot do it justice, our visit to Halong Bay has been a highlight of our trip so far - a not-to-be-missed stop on any Vietnamese itinerary.
Source: Travel Blogs