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Published: November 11th 2007
One of the things everyone reccommends you see when you go to the Norh of Vietnam is Halong Bay. It's supposed to be the most beautiful natural wonder, lots of limestone karsts thrusting out of the water. Its a World Heritage Site. Again, like the turtles in the lake story, there is local legend about Halong Bay as well. Apparently long ago when the Vietnamese were fighting Chinese invaders, the gods sent a family of dragons to help to defend the land. This family of dragons began spitting out jewels and jade. These jewels turned into the islands and islets dotting the bay, linking together to form a great wall against the invaders. The people kept their land safe and formed what later became the country of Vietnam. After that, dragons were interested in peaceful sightseeing of the Earth and decided to live here then. The place where Mother Dragon flew down was named Hạ Long, which means desending dragons. I don't know if this story is true, we didn't see any dragons...but as every ecologist knows, just because you don't see something, doesn't mean its not there!
You can just get a day trip around the
bay, but most people spend the night on a boat in the bay. We wanted to do this but we had heard lots of horror stories about it. Mainly from people who booked specific itineraries and didn't get what the paid for, not getting the boat they expected and changes to the itinary. We'd heard that the budget trip was exactly what it said, budget. However, we wanted to see the bay but didn't have lots of money to spend on the recommended tours where they could guarantee that what you read in the advertising was what you got. So we decided to book a 1 night budget tour where there was very little advertising, so that if we didn't know what to expect, we wouldn't be disappointed. And for $30 each for an overnight boat trip including 4 meals, we didn't expect luxury!
So we got picked up by the minibus and driven the 3 1/2 hour trip to Halong City, where the boat trips go from. There we were shown onto our boat, a wooden Chinese style junk. There were loads and loads of boats in the port, and we had to climb over a few to
get to our boat, which was at the back. It had an inside dining area and bedrooms around the outside, then up some steps you had a deck area with some sunbeds and room to sit out. We ate lunch on the boat, a buffet meal of various Vietnamese dishes (including crinkle cut chips!) and then set off. First stop was Thien Cung cave. We got off the boat on one of the islets, climbed up lots of steps and entered an enormous cave. There were stalagtites and stalagmites throughout, and some limestone formations that looked like turtles and dragons. It was lit up with different coloured lights, which made the whole thing look stunning. There was a hole in the roof where the sunlight poured in, that hole was apparently where a fisherman first discovered the cave in the early 20th century. It's known as the way to heaven because of the way the white light shines into the cave.
After the cave we piled back onto the boat and went for a cruise around the karsts in the bay. We also passed floating villages, where as usual people rowed out to sell us fruit and drinks. The
Way to heaven
in the cave, the hole the fisherman who found the cave first came through.
weather was perfect, sunny and warm but not too hot, and it was increadibly peaceful. As the sun got lower in the sky the bay got even more beautiful. The sunset was amazing. As it got dark they moored the boat up in a bay, surrounded by other Chinese junks. In the dark all the multicoloured lights on the boats reflected in the water. It was also a full moon so the views were lovely. They served us dinner on the boat, another selection of Vietnamese food, and we spent the evening chatting to some of the other people on the boat over a few cans of beer before bed.
The next morning at 6.30am we got up and went sea kayaking. The boats that were moored by us overnight were still there, and most people on them seemed to be still asleep. It was early and quiet as we kayaked around some of the karsts, exploring some of the little islands nearby. It was a really peaceful time of the day to be kayakking. After an hour we got back on the boat for breakfast, before heading back on another cruise through the bay. We went back in
Halong City for lunch, which we were given in a restaurant by the port. We then piled back in the bus and were driven back to Hanoi.
The boat trip was great. It was exactly what you would expect for the price. It was no luxury boat, but it was comfortable and clean. The food was basic but nice. The bay was stunning and well worth visiting. In fact we had no complaints at all about the tour. However, the people on the tour were another thing again. When we got on the boat the first morning our group were cool. We chatted to a nice couple from Ireland who were on holiday in Vietnam, a cute couple from Tazmania (or "Tazzie") on a tour of Asia and a Swiss doctor. Everyone seemed nice. Then before we stopped for the night we dropped some of our group for an overnight on one of the big islands, Cat Ba, where they were to stay in a hotel. In their place we picked up some people who were on a 2 night tour, with 1 night on the island and the 2nd on the boat. And we succeeded in picking up
cruising through the limestone karsts
Cruising around Halong bay in the daylight
some of the most annoying people we have met on our trip. They were loud and obnoxious, complaining from the moment they got on board that their trip wasn't what they thought they had booked, being rude to the staff, complaining about Vietnam in general and slagging off the Vietnamese and being allround generally annoying. They were the sort of people who get picked for the Big Brother house because they make good TV viewing watching them annoy the other housemates. At one point some local women were trying to sell us beer and snacks from a rowing boat. One guy berated her from the boat, then jumped into the water, nearly sunk her boat and push all her stock into the water and then stole some cigarettes from her. Then later that night we were drinking beer from the shop on the boat. After we went to bed some of these people decided that they didn't want to pay the poor local boat crew for the beer, (the crew who by this point were lying around the dining area where they had to sleep for the night, hoping that the tourists would go to bed). No, they decided to
steal it. So they devised some system where they kept creeping past the fridge and stealing beer. Apparently at some point at about 2am they were caught and the crew got rather angry. Understandably I would have thought, but they seemed agast about why the next day when they proudly told us of their beer stealing antics. It rather backfired the next morning when the crew had simply calculated how much beer had gone missing and added it to everyone's talley. You can imagine we were furious when we found out we were being charged extra for stolen beer, since we had been asleep in bed during the whole thing.
If this was not enough, when we went kayaking, the same obnoxious tourists managed to topple and sink their kayak and then shout and scream and swear at and threaten the guide when he refused to help. To be honest, I imagine he was abit pissed off after having only 3 hours sleep due to the beer stealing antics of the night before. Ok, he probably should have been abit more concerned that someone was stuck in the way in the bay clinging to a kayak, but it was
a hot day and the water was calm so we wasnt really in any danger. And the way the other guy (who I'm ashamed to say was British) shouted and screamed and threatened the guide, I wouldnt have helped him either. Anyway, the crew did get the kayak back, charged them for a lost paddle and for the stolen beer. And then the tourists continued to complain all the way home.
So, group tours, they can be great if you get nice people, but if you get the one boat with the complete arseholes on it, it can totally wreck your trip. We will be thinking very hard before we book another group tour.
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