Cruising on our contemporary junk boat through the random jumble of ever changing limestone crags and karsts was by far one of the top 5 natural wondrous landscapes we have laid eyes on. We were literally in awe as the uninhabited islands continued to be laid out in front of us at every turn. We had certainly been looking forward to Vietnam’s Halong Bay since initial ideas of a trip through SE Asia came to us a few years back, and we weren’t disappointed by any stretch of the imagination.
But before our dreams and prior visions of sucking back a few fruity cocktails whilst lounging back on the sun deck of a traditional junk boat whilst gazing at the inspirational craggy peaks jutting out from the South China Sea were realised, we first had 4 full glorious days of discovery in the bustling northern Vietnamese capital of Hanoi.
It was hard not to compare our first impressions of Hanoi against it’s Southern counterpart, HCMC. It certainly wasn’t as green, organised, walkable, or leisurely as we had found HCMC. Yet it had it’s own engrained charm quite unlike the city formerly known as Saigon. Curious chirping birds in vintage
wire cages adorned almost any spare tree branch or wall hook overhanging the footpaths. Elderly con la wearing Vietnamese ladies balanced their fresh bright produce from a stick of bamboo, with equally weighted large dangling baskets, for miles on end, in hope that by sundown they will clear their hampers contents. Serenity and respite from the continuous hustle and bustle of narrow streets filled with mainly motorcycles and pavement trampling pedestrians could be found really only at either of the two large lakes (West Lake and Hoan Kiem Lake) located within the metropolis' boundaries. The streets also seemed to be organised according to the goods that are sold on them, so you have pots and pans street, bird cage street, fabric street, kitchen utensil street, bamboo stalk street, and even rice street. I guess in reflection it makes perfect sense as none of the shops appear to have names or addresses.
But for us, Hanoi was as much about getting our fitness and general well being back on track as it was about the city itself. We had been exercising perhaps three times per week on average but after the past 3 months not paying particular attention to what
we ate, portion control, or alcohol indulgence, so to us anyway (and that’s all that is really important) our bodily appearances felt as though they had taken a turn for the worse. So we found the most luxurious gym possible and signed up for a 4 day pass. The gym itself was certainly like nothing else we had seen or experienced in Asia to date, and at a cost of around $100USD each for the 4 days, we decided we would need to fit in at least 7 sessions over the next 4 days to truly get our monies worth. So it was time to turn hardcore and shock our bodies to the core. We completed the goal, but barely. Managing to fit in seven solid yoga, weights, and fitness classes in the 4 days. Some sessions were also backed up, so that we completed both a weights and a fitness session (such as a group abs class with an instructor) in one visit. But the goal was obtained and we started to feel great again, and by the end of the 4 days, somewhat mentally refreshed and physically tighter. Of course we don’t expect this feeling to last all
that long considering we are about to embark on another cruise, this time in Halong Bay, but with the same company as the Mekong cruise. Which can only mean one thing… five course minimum meals, with huge portions.
In Hanoi, we ended up staying around Hang Buom in the Hanoi Holiday Diamond hotel, which was fine and quite a good location with regards to having the action of Ma May street close by. However we much preferred the area around Cua Dong, particularly surrounding Cho Hang Da shopping mall, as it was closer to the great gym for one, but also the good shopping, and the really great restaurants, cafes and local eateries. We would concentrate our hotel research on this latter area should we ever stop into Hanoi again.
We spent a considerable amount of time at a couple of the "very Melbourne” cafes, where we caught up on travel blogs, photos, emails, and social media in general. The two notable cafes which we loved were Hanoi Social Club, and another on the second floor of Cho Hang Da mall. Vince also received his third of five scheduled rabies vaccinations. All seems to be tracking along fine,
and there are no signs of active infection. Suz too had some medical attention with a trip to the local international dentist to investigate the cause of a sensitive tooth. Turned out to be an infected gum, which wasn’t serious and was great news as we certainly weren’t too keen on the idea of her having any major dental work on the road. So the only truly “touristy” item we added to our agenda was the interesting women’s museum. The museum was great for a couple of hours and showcased the important roles that both everyday and significantly influensive women had and still have within the Vietnamese culture and historical upbringing of the country itself. The highlight was probably the many ethnic female outfits on display, along with the accompanying short documentaries on how each craft was implemented in order to make them.
For our Halong Bay cruise we chose to book with a reliable and well reviewed company Handspan, and we are glad we did. The tour was a 3 day, 2 night itinerary taking in the glorious unspoilt and less tourist frequented areas of Halong Bay. Getting off the beaten path a bit more in
Halong Bay is a very difficult task as there are literally hundreds of tourist boats ploughing the waters everyday, however we managed to do just that. During both of our kayaking excursions away from the junk boat, we were truly in isolation, along with only our guide and the rest of our small travelling group of about 10 other people. However, paddling well out in the front of the group, as we did, gave the true feeling of just you, the ocean, and the 80m high limestone pinnacles that gave off the continuous buzzing of cicadas.
Going for a dip in the cool waters of the South China Sea gave some welcome respite to the unsheltered couple of hours spent on the kayak. One swim from the shores of a white sandy secluded beach, sheltered by the surrounding cliffs and another directly from the deck of the junk. When submerging our heads under the ocean we could hear the eery sound of small limestone rocks and pebbles grinding over one another as the currents swirled around us. All whilst holding our breath and taking a moment to reflect on the path that those rocks had taken over the last
few hundreds of thousands of years, having first broken away from their mother karst and finally being taken by the oceans currents to their present resting place.
One morning we awoke to start our day just after dawn and took a tai chi class on the deck of the junk with just a handful of other passengers. It was such a relaxing, peaceful and refreshing experience as we watched the early morning rays poke in and out of the karsts from the deck of the moving boat.
Similar to our Mekong Delta cruising experience, during mealtimes, there were at least 5 courses per meal, however at least this time the meal portions were a lot more manageable. The food was again very nice and with plenty of variety, if anything more heavily concentrated on fresh seafood caught straight from the Bay. We had the opportunity both nights to either participate or observe the boat crew professionals take to the water for a spot of squid fishing. We chose the latter, as we certainly believed we would be much better squid “spotters” from the upper deck than fishermen.
The sport involves the use of a spotlight to attract
the squid to the surface whilst continuously jigging a squid lure from the end of a bamboo pole in and out of the water until they take the bait. The pros caught plenty, and the passengers caught very few. Although it seemed like the women and small children were having more success than the overly enthusiastic full grown males. At one point the current brought with it a giant jellyfish which floated awkwardly towards the fishermen. The thing must have had a body easily 600mm in diameter and weighed around 15kgs. Unfortunately it moved and then disappeared with the current too quickly to get a photo so you will just have to take my potentially exaggerated word for it, like the one that got away.
The only slightly disappointing parts of the 3 days were the few hours spent on the smaller dodgy rundown “transit” boat following a sea kayak session, whilst waiting for the main junk boat to come back after picking up new passengers. Then also the “cooking” demonstrations, which left a lot to be desired, teaching passengers how to “cook” a fresh springroll. The demonstration literally entailed placing pre chopped vegetables into rice paper and then
rolling it. Hardly a difficult process, and not what you would really call “cooking".
The final morning of our cruise was spent on board a small wooden row boat, getting rowed around a particularly large floating village set in dramatic limestone island scenery. It was a beautiful way to spend a morning, even with the faint drizzle that had set in following an early morning thunderstorm. The small boats dropped us off at a pearl and fish farm where we learnt about the process for farming man made pearls. Effectively a small spherical ball of crushed oyster shell is placed into a young oyster, left in the ocean submerged basket for 5 years, as the oyster coats the alien substance in order to prevent aggravation and infection of the oyster’s flesh itself. The coating is made with the same material as the shiny reflective internal surface of the oyster shell and continuously builds up over the five year period until a beautiful pearl is finally removed from the oyster. Yes the oyster does die once the shell is opened and the pearl removed, but they are put to good use…. feeding the locals who farm them.
the previous spectacular 3 days spent cruising and exploring all that the beautiful Halong Bay has to offer, it was to be a junk boat, tender boat, minivan, private car, plane, taxi combination to get from the middle of the Bay and over to Luang Prabang, Laos. We’ve definitely had our share of transportation methods on this trip, with no doubt many more to come!
Favourite Food Finds:
• street food style 'bun cha' at Bun Bo Nam Bo
• finally some simple meat and 3 veg at Purple Cherry
Favorite Exercise Experiences:
• seven tough gym sessions in just four days at Fusion Bodyworks
• our steamy yoga session with the extremely flexible vietnamese women and especially joking around with them, exhaling enthusiastically, about how difficult some of the poses were
• early morning tai chi on the junk
We Will Remember This Place For:
• getting up close to the beautiful limestone karst scenery in Halong Bay
• the seemingly never-ending footpath full of teeny tiny chairs the locals sit on eating their street food night after night (I don’t even think I
could get one cheek on them!)
• the extremely lazy workers in the adidas store that chose to sleep rather than serve us, and the sneaky photo of them I took…. they sure did jump up pretty quickly to look busy after that
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