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Published: December 10th 2009
We were collected early from our hotel in Hanoi for the three hour drive north to Halong Bay. Once we left the city we passed big wide fields where rice was grown - all empty now as they only have one rice season a year in this area. The farmers were however burning off the stubble from the rice crops and therefore the skies were shrouded in a heavy smoke haze. We hoped that the haze wasn't going to extend to the Halong area and spoil our view of the large limestone peaks which make the scenery so spectacular there. After a stop at the inevitable souvenir shop we arrived at the chaos which was the port area for Halong Bay. We were shocked to discover that 300 tourist boats now ply the waters of the bay - and most were offloading guests when we arrived. Eight years ago only 30 boats were sailing in the area. Thankfully the government is not granting permission for any new operators here now.
Devin had recommended that we travel with Haiphong Hua Junks as they were a reliable company - they alone had 30 boats. We were ushered after about an hours wait on
the jetty via a small ) - only one or two of the extremely expensive junks now use the sails. We were a small group - 4 couples and three girls - as the junk only carries 12 guests. It was very comfortable - small but clean cabin with ensuite. We were greeted with drinks and cool cloths before the ship motored away from the main group. Lunch soon followed and was of a high standard - eight small courses mainly comprising of seafood. Over the 3 days all the food offered was prepared differently, served with crisp linen and beautifully decorated. And it all tasted fabulous.
After lunch we visited a big cave complex which was interesting - full of stalacites etc. , all colourfuly lit up with lights. There were of course many other people viewing the caves with us. Next they took us to a small island beach with a look out above it. I decided to stay on board and read in the shade on deck - they had comfy wicker lounges - but everybody else went ashore. Jerry climbed to the lookout - much opnce there we realised that many of the junks we
saw previously at the dock were for day trippers only as the bay we spent the night in wasn't over crowed. In fact it was very pretty after dark with all the lights sparking in the water. We sat on the rooftop with a glass of (expensive) wine and watched the sun set behind the peaks. It was very beautiful - the area was very similar to the glorious scenery around the Li River in China - with water instead of rice paddies. A lovely dinner followed and then an early night - thankfully there were no karaoke bars on the other boats.
The next day was fabulous from start to finish. After breakfast we were all put into small 2 person kayaks (I definately had reservations) but thoroughly enjoyed it. We spent the morning rowing around the bay and visiting some of the grottos which were within some of the peaks. It was really peaceful and beautiful. There were no other boats around as we had motored away from everybody else. We only spotted a few other boats in the distance for the remainder of the day. There were many tiny little wooden boats with local fishermen bobbibg around
us. Later most people onboard spent an hour jumping into the water from the decks of the boat - again I read. I'm not totally comfortable in the water at the best of time.
Late afternoon we were back in the kayaks for a long paddle to and around the fishing village which floats on the waters of the bay. The houses were very simple, made of wooden planks, with electricity but all fresh water had to fetched from on shore each day. The guide on our boat said that the people were very poor and had a very difficult life. This I can definately believe. One wonders how they still manage to find fish in the water - you would think that the supplies would be depleted. The locals all seemed happy to see us - we got plenty of waves anyway! Another sunset, the rest of the bottle of wine drunk whilst watching the stars and another happy day finished. Next day was a bit crazier however as straight after breakfast it was back in the kayaks for another paddle before heading back to the mayhem of the harbour. A brunch was served on the way back -
we all ate it of course but it really hadn't been long since breakfast. The tip envelope was presented to us before the bar bills - ours wasn't too bad but the three girls travelling together nearly passed out when they got theirs.
We loved the trip - the scenery was spectacular, especially on the middle day, but we were very pleased that we did two night trip and not just the one night. You would not have got much time kayaking on the shorter trip - we spent at least 4 hours on the water - certainly much more then either of us was expecting. Drinks were too expensive but most people were able to by a few from the ladies from the fishing village when they rowed up to the sides of the junks with their boats loaded with everything you would want. They even had the beers on ice! The junk crews weren't happy to see them amd kept chasing them away but they just kept rowing around in circles and would appear at the side of the junk just as your drink finished! Like all Asians they never miss an opportunity to earn some extra cash.
Returning to the dock we pushed our way through the crowds, stood waiting for our bus from Hanoi to bring the new guests before it took us back the 3 hours to the city. That evening we had tickets booked on the overnight train to Sapa in North West Vietnam. We had visited the area on a previous trip but were expecting to see major changes there. Eight years previously they were still buiding roads around Sapa. A few hours spent in a cafe, then off to catch the night train.
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