Cruising around one of the natural wonders of the world – spectacular Halong Bay!

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Asia » Vietnam » Red River Delta » Hai Phong » Cat Ba Island
August 9th 2013
Published: October 16th 2013
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Waking up to see it was still raining outside was pretty disappointing to say the least… Ah well… Nobody would give us money back for the trip at this stage, so rain or no rain, we were off to Halong Bay! I was really surprised how flooded some areas of Hanoi were when we were driving through the city. Still it didn’t stop all the bikers from moving around! Raincoats on, legs up in the air and speeding through the puddles… I was more than happy to be sitting in a van though… We had 13 people on board and it looked like it was going to be our group for the next days. Good size of a group I would say! And we had quite a mix of nationalities as well which is always interesting – a few Germans, Spanish, Brits, one Finish, one Kiwi and a Pole (yep! that would be Grant and myself of course!). With this weather nobody really was in a socialising mood just yet, so quietly we drove to Bai Chay, where we would jump on the boat. As we were getting closer to town, it started lashing like crazy. It certainly didn’t look too promising… Somehow when we got to the harbour though, it seemed to have stopped raining… Hmmm… Maybe we were going to be lucky with the weather after all?

One thing I have to say about Bai Chay is that it was pretty damn crowded! I definitely have never seen so many boats at one place. And the way they were ‘parking’ was quite astonishing as well. There was no place that would be too tight for any boat – if there was no space, they were making space by simply pushing other boats on the side and just squeezing in between. I guess that’s how it’s done right? We waited for our pick-up boat to squeeze in as well and soon after were off to the main boat. It was still drizzling a bit but it was definitely an improvement to the weather only a few minutes before. Things were looking good! We passed quite a few boats on the way and what a range of boats that was – from scruffy, ready to fall apart boats packed with people (obviously the cheaper, overcrowded tours) to some mighty brand-new-and-posh-looking big boats with only a few people on board (probably ridiculously overpriced). I was wondering what kind of boat we would be boarding soon… Well… It wasn’t one of the brand new ones obviously, still our boat was definitely in good shape and once we got the keys to our rooms, I was more than satisfied! I thought we would be getting some tiny bunk beds and a shared bathroom but instead we got a lovely clean room with a big bed and a private bathroom – what can I say? Just perfect!

Soon after we were cruising through the Bay of Descending Dragons – Halong Bay that is of course! The name has its source from a legend which says that once a huge dragon from the mountains had descended towards the coast and by waving his tail had created all the cliffs around. He did a pretty good job I’d say as there are apparently close to 2,000 limestone islands and cliffs around. As soon as we boarded our boat rain seemed to have stopped and we were able to enjoy the views all around from the top deck. What an incredible place! Pretty crowded for sure with all the boats around, nevertheless very peaceful… Good weather or not at this point we knew we were going to love this trip – how could you not with this astonishing scenery around right? After lunch and a few hours of cruising in between the limestone cliffs and after passing a few small floating villages we were off to see one of the nearby caves – Hang Sung Sot also known as the Surprising Cave. If I thought Halong Bay was crowded before, well… it looked like the most crowded place was right in front of us as we basically had to queue all the way through the cave. It looked like many boats had very similar itineraries to ours then. As we were approaching the cave it certainly didn’t seem big, it was quite a surprise then to see two huge rooms inside – apparently in the main room the ceiling was 30 metres high. Beautiful rock formations, a few colourful lights set here and there to exaggerate the size of the rocks or to point out some unusual shapes, even though totally overcrowded still quite an impressive cave! One thing that was definitely worth a visit here was the view from the entrance to the cave – dozens of boats around, many of them parked at the pier, a couple of floating houses here and there and an amazing cliffs all around! Beautiful!

After a visit to the cave, we went back to our boat, only to get changed into swimsuits and soon after we were kayaking on the waters of Halong Bay, around the rocks, under the rocks, in between the big boats while visiting hidden and amazingly peaceful lagoons, incredible! Our kayak seemed to be choosing its own direction at times, so a bit extra effort had to be put into rowing, still what muscles we would have after this exercise right? 😉 We stopped at one point and whoever wanted could jump into the water to cool off a bit. As tempting as it sounded, I could see myself trying to get back on the kayak later on… Hmmm… Yep! It would end up in me having a few bruises for sure! Or I could knock out someone else instead? Naaah… Better not! Kayaking was exciting enough, besides I was already soaked from splashing around anyway… After freshening up we went up to check out the sunset – well… to check out how it was getting darker to be precise as the sky was still way too cloudy, there were a few blue patches here and there though so it looked like there was a chance we could have nice weather next day maybe? Fingers crossed! It was so peaceful all around, boats switched off their engines and anchored all around the Halong Bay with only some dim lights on… Beautiful sight!

Before dinner we had a chance to find out how to make fresh Vietnamese spring rolls and taste them of course afterwards. Recipe easy enough if you manage to get all the ingredients that is! So tasty though! Yum! After having a few spring rolls my belly was more than satisfied already, still it looked like the dinner hasn’t even started yet as soon after all the plates started appearing on the table… That was a lot of food! Not to mention how tasty everything looked like and how beautifully presented it was! Fresh veggies carved into flower shapes, fresh prawns, calamari, fish, you name it, all nicely set on plates… and rice formed in a shape of a turtle – with a sword in his mouth (straight from Hanoi I guess)! They really put a lot of effort into this dinner for sure! While we were enjoying our dinner, our guide/captain/leader Chuk (again my spelling might be way off to the original name, oops!) was telling us stories about Vietnam and its people. He really knew a lot of stuff and was more than willing to share his knowledge with us. One thing that everybody found particularly interesting was that in the countryside all the boys since young age were involved in the process of making cigarettes and rice wine. That was one of the first things they actually had to learn how to make. And to make sure their products were good quality, obviously they had to know their taste, so almost all the boys from age 10 onwards were drinking and smoking already. Chuk said that he quit smoking when he was 15. Whaaat? That’s just crazy –most of the time that’s when the kids first try these kinds of products in the western world. He said that some of the traditions are slowly disappearing though as people move from countryside to towns (like Hanoi which has been expanding like crazy the last few years) looking to improve their living standards. Well, I guess this problem is known worldwide right? Also we found out why the houses in Hanoi were so narrow – some really not more than 2 metres wide. Chuk said that the land closer to the street was so expensive that most of the times a few families bought together a land by the street and at the very back of it and later on divided it in between themselves in a way that everyone would have access to the street (therefore making the house very narrow but pretty long as well). Really interesting! We could sit and listen to him for hours… After dinner we had a couple of beers and were exchanging some travelling stories with our boat companions – one of the couples, the Brits, were living in New Zealand for the past year and a half and were on the way back home now while another couple, the Germans, were on a round the world trip which was coming to an end shortly as well – apparently a part of their trip they spent separately as had enough of each other at some stage, haha! Well… Being with someone 24/7 can definitely prove to be challenging at times… So far so good for us though – actually it just couldn’t be better! Perfect match maybe? Yep! Definitely! 😊 Anyway… Just love listening to other people’s travelling stories and having been to a few places by now, I can definitely look at some places from a totally different perspective. It’s amazing how different opinions people can have about the same places! I always try to find some positives wherever I go – you never know what you could find if you are willing to open yourself up to possibilities… This lovely evening was just a perfect finish to an incredible day! Not to mention that I would be spending my first night on a boat (at least I can’t recall any other nights on the water)… So many firsts on this trip… Seriously loving it all!

We woke up just as the sun was rising above the horizon. Quickly we ran to the top deck to check out the sunrise – what a beautiful sight it was! I can’t say that I was or would be experiencing many sunrises on this trip… it’s simply impossible to wake up at this devilish hour… still here no problem at all, woke up all fresh and ready for the next day of cruising! A few moments later we heard the motor roaring again and we were off to a Titop Beach on a nearby island. There was a pagoda set right on top of the hill on the island – meaning beautiful views for sure! Even though it was early morning, the sun was full on already (yay! Sun!) so I knew I would be a bit puffed when I reached the top, still there was no chance I was missing this view. So after 340 steps up (piece of cake! 😉) we were on top of the hill gazing upon the limestone cliffs from high above… Wow! Cruising in between the cliffs was spectacular already but this view was simply breathtaking! We didn’t have too much time here as the day was still packed with activities, it was definitely worth the climb even for a moment though. On the way down to the beach I was attacked by a penguin/dolphin… Well… The bin in a size of a penguin/dolphin that is (still don’t know what it was supposed to be exactly)! I didn’t even touch the bin! There was nobody around at that time so I can’t say that somebody pushed it in my direction. I was simply walking passed by it and the bin just decided to roll on me down the stairs… Big, heavy metal bin that is! Thankfully my personal hero – yep! that would be Grant 😊 was just behind me so he came to my rescue again… Only a few bruises on my hand, leg and a sore finger in the end! Not so bad! Whatever makes me tougher right? Once we got to the beach, we just couldn’t resist the refreshing water this time – especially that our guide Chuk said that this was one of the cleaner beaches in the Halong Bay. Hmmm… So far except some polystyrene floating around here and there I can’t say that the waters were dirty at all… We would see what he meant later on I guess?

After a refreshing dip in the water, it was time for breakfast, so we headed back to our boat and while having a pretty big and tasty meal once again we cruised in the direction of Lan Ha Bay. Along the way we swapped the boats and said goodbye to one German couple as they booked the tour for one night only while the rest of headed further. What a beautiful day it was! We were sitting on the top deck, enjoying the sun and admiring the beautiful scenery around, watching prawns skipping on the water surface, passing by other boats and small floating houses here and there, seeing people fishing all around, just taking it all in! After a while (2 hours or so but it felt like a blink of an eye!) we reached Lan Ha Bay and were ready to explore a part of Cat Ba National Park. We got some rusty looking bikes (not bad comparing to the bikes we rented in Laos though) and cycled to Viet Hai village. There were a few steep hills – as much as I tried to get to the top cycling, with this bike it was simply impossible… Or maybe I wasn’t fit enough? Well… One of the two I guess… 😉 We had to jump off the bike at one point as it looked like a part of the
one of floating houses aroundone of floating houses aroundone of floating houses around

very patriotic inhabitants I guess...
road slid down and they were trying to fix it, but besides that it was a lovely ride to the village. Once we got there we got a bit of a lecture from Chuk about the island and were ready trek through the National Park. Looking at a few pairs of flip-flops around, Chuk warned us that some parts of the trek were pretty rough so whoever wanted to skip it was free to wait for the rest at the village. Still most of us decided to give it a try anyway… I had my trainers on but soon enough understood what Chuk was talking about by warning us about the track – the path was all muddy and later on it was even hard to make out where the track was to be honest. If Chuk wasn’t leading us the way I doubt we would be able to find this ‘path’ – totally overgrown by plants and bushes. Damn it was humid as well! Still it felt like a proper jungle walk – once we even head to dodge a huge spider web set right next to the track (apparently the spider was poisonous? Hmmm…). Later on we had to climb up a bit through rocks – I was really happy I had my trainers on, some of the rocks were really sharp so couldn’t imagine how I would manage to pass through here in flip-flops… Some people managed though (nice one Grant! 😉)… Path got even more interesting later on - with some rusty ladders hidden in the tropical bushes on the way… Once we got to a cave Chuk asked if anyone was up for some rock climbing, taking into account that most of us didn’t have proper shoes, we just gave up on this idea. Too bad as I was more than ready for the challenge? Well, I thought I was at least… Then a bit more climbing up, gazing upon Viet Hai village from the top and descending back to our bikes. Funnily enough we came across a German couple we trekked with in Sapa – small world right? On the way back to our boat there were even more construction works taking place on the road. One part was totally blocked by an excavator! Eventually we managed to pass by it – still they didn’t stop the works even for a moment to let the people through! They were even drilling up through the rock right on top of our heads. Safety procedures? Things like this don’t exist here apparently… We were all thinking about jumping into the water once we were back on the boat… Soooo hot! And after cycling and trekking we definitely needed to freshen up a bit. A few moments after we anchored at some lovely quiet spot and were ready to jump in, from the top of the boat of course! Well… It looked pretty easy, but once I stood at the edge ready to jump, my legs simply didn’t want to move an inch… Damn it was high! Still after a few prayers and a couple deep breaths, I thought ‘Come on woman! Don’t be a chicken!’ and was flying soon after… Wow! That was cool! What an adrenaline rush for a moment! So decided to repeat it, but this time with Grant! 😊 Woohoo! Awesome! Then another filling and tasty lunch (not as tasty as on the big boat though), a bit more cruising through the limestone cliffs and soon after we docked at one of the floating villages where we could do some kayaking again. As we walked to get our kayaks at one of the platforms, suddenly there was a big cracking sound and one of the Spanish girls went through the wooden planks into the water. We quickly pulled her up on the platform again but the damage was done already – it looked like her leg would be totally bruised as there were quite a few red marks there already, thankfully she didn’t break it and no splinters went through her leg! The owner of the place only looked at what happened and smiled as if saying ‘yep! I knew this plank would give away eventually’… We were quite afraid to be stepping on the planks after that incident but thankfully the kayaks were ready and we were rowing a few moments later. We spotted a small beach nearby while we were cruising so decided to head there. It looked really cosy from far away but as soon as we got there, we had to give Chuk some credit – it was filthy! Trash everywhere on the sand! Such a shame as it was a really nice and intimate spot… We soaked in the water for a while enjoying the surroundings and each other’s company in this lovely, despite being dirty, place and headed back to the boat. Once everybody was on board again, we cruised to Cat Ba Island. As we were approaching the main town on Cat Ba we passed by an extensive floating village. So many houses on the water! I was really surprised to see that so many people lived like this. Not sure if I would be able to live like this – total respect!

Soon after we arrived at our hotel – apparently the craziest hotel in town as it was the only place with music full volume on that we passed by on the island. And it was some bad mix that seemed to be going over and over again for that matter as well! Ah well… We were wondering how long the music would go on… They seemed to be setting up some tables in front of the hotel so maybe there was some big party planned for the evening? Anyway… We watched the sun setting over the bay from our balcony and headed to town to have some food afterwards. The place was packed with tourists – mostly Asian tourists actually. Chuk told us that the general rule in the restaurants, eat where the locals eat, didn’t apply here as there were simply no locals around. Good to know! We had some pretty decent meal at a totally random place and headed back to our hotel straight after. It was a long day after all… It wasn’t even 10pm yet and there was no sign of the party at our hotel anymore – that was a surprise! A nice surprise to be honest! Peace and quiet after all…

We woke up to a beautiful sunrise again and had a chance to look upon the bay for the last time. We were slowly saying goodbye to Halong Bay after all. After breakfast we cruised for a few hours, changed the boats again and soon after we were heading back to Hanoi. It went by so fast… What an incredible cruise that was though! Boat in a perfect condition, food absolutely exquisite, our crew very friendly, not to mention that our guide Chuk was simply fantastic, and then the views… Just a few rocks sticking out from water right? Well… Much, much more than that… A true natural wonder of this world! Very picturesque and tranquil place for sure… definitely wouldn’t mind coming back here one day… But we weren’t saying goodbye to limestone cliffs just yet as we had some more to gaze upon ahead of us anyway… This time on land though… Next stop: Ninh Binh!

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16th October 2013

Fantastic adventure!
What a great cruise that you had both luxuries and adventures! I love that you were willing to push yourself a bit--jumping off the high boat and climbing up to the viewpoint before breakfast (great descriptions of food, too). I love those limestone karst formations, so I'm also looking forward to your next blog. Good show!
21st October 2013

Thanks for reading Tara. What can I say? I just loved Halong Bay! Simply incredible place... Cheers!

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