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Published: November 17th 2015
Ha Long Bay covers an area of approx 1550 sq Kms with close to 2000 limestone karsts sticking out of the water of the Sea of Tonkin. The core of the bay is approx 334 sq kms with close to 800 karsts - the entire area was designated a world heritage site in 1994 and is one of the most popular destinations in Vietnam. On our first day in Hanoi we started the round of some of the many "travel agencies" to book an overnight trip to Ha Long Bay. After being given prices of $60.00, $70.00 and $100.00 for the same boat, we decided to check with our hotel tourist desk. The price for the trips they offered was a lot moved money but we decided to go for it, accepting that you get what you pay for.
So two hours after getting off the train from Sa Pa, we were picked up by the bus from A Class cruises. It took quite a while for the bus to negotiate the busy streets and pick up the other passengers but finally we were on the way for our 4 hour drive to Bai Chay where we would get on
our boat. There was a rest stop at a huge tourist area and while we were there, it started pouring - not a good omen.
By the time we arrived at Bai Chay,the rain had stopped and we entered the world of organized chaos. There are 180 sleeping boats and they are all pretty much on the same schedule - dropping off passengers at noon and picking up a new group about an hour later. A tender took us out to the Carina, our home for the next two days - after a welcome drink we were shown to our cabin on the lower deck - very nice! Cruising out into the bay ( with many other boats), the temperature became significantly warmer. Lunch was phenomenal - seafood soup, green papaya salad, spring rolls, sentinel crabs steamed with meat, sautéed squid with celery and leek, steamed Mekong catfish with tomato sauce, vegetables, rice and fresh fruit- one course after another.
First stop was to visit a limestone cave - we should have been warned that it was fairly strenuous hike - there a lot of other groups there at the same time and at least 1 person had
to turn back. When we got back to the boat we were joined by the rest of the passengers who were on day 2 of a 3 day cruise - they spend their second day on a "day boat" doing various activities while the mother ship returns to port to pick up the next group. There are over 300 day boats that either carry passengers from the sleeping boats or do a short tour from the mainland. Then it was off to the swimming area - so warm in the water! The scenery is absolutely stunning with limestone karsts jutting out of the water everywhere - every time you turn around there is a new tantalizing view.
Everything was on a tight schedule and after 50 minutes of swimming it was time to go to the night anchor spot. One advantage of not being on a "cheap" boat was that we were not surrounded by heaps of other boats - the masses were on the other side of the bay. Sunset drinks on the top deck - although there was no sun to see setting. Dinner was another food fest eaten up top - pumpkin soup, banana flower
soup, grilled Ha Long squid, sweet and sour chicken, BBQ pork chop, vegetables, rice, burned banana with chocolate.
There was an opportunity to go squid fishing - a bright light was shone in the water ( to attract the squid) and the fishing line was jerked up and down hoping that a squid would hook itself on the jigger. So much for that idea.
The second day schedule started with a Tai Chi lesson at 6:30am. It is a lot tougher than it looks and needs a lot of body control and coordination. Breakfast at 7 and then the tender took us to a fishing village where we had 40 minutes of kayaking. Over recent years there has been a lot of cleanup in the bay. Many of the fishing villages have gone ( there are only two left) with the government giving the people new homes. Those remaining are not allowed to put any garbage in the water. There were some empty huts at the end of the little bay we were in - apparently destined for an ecotourism venture. Paddling back to the kayak rental station ( yes, it is all so organized here) we saw
a young boy rowing with his feet and later saw another one who was texting with his free hands!
Our cabins were vacated by 9:45am and a spring roll lesson started sharply at 10am. The best part was learning that brushing egg white over the rice wrappers, softens them - and that they are fried for a long time at medium heat. The finished spring rolls were part of our lunch along with chicken and corn soup, French fries, chicken CaRi, fried Ha Long squid with butter and garlic, vegetables, rice and fruit.
By the time we had finished eating we were back at port and so ended a great trip into a justifiably highlight of this country - and once again entering organized chaos as each tour group was herded to their buses for the journey back to Hanoi. During our rest stop at a "tourist shop" we made the silly mistake of asking the price of a hand stitched painting and were shadowed for the remaining 20 mins - obviously the staff are on commission.
Saturday night in Hanoi - if I thought that scooters were a menace before, on the weekend they are downright
lethal!!!!! Wandering around the Old Quarter we got Bahn My from a street stand ( baguette filled with pork skewers and pickled vegetables then it was off to Bia corner where Kelly downed a glass of Bia Hoi, the local draught beer - cost? approx 30 cents.
Our last day in Hanoi......we visited the Memorial House, a restored traditional merchants house as well as finding our way back to the lady who sold the yummy Bahn Ghoi ( deep fried donut filled with pork, mushrooms and vermicelli) that was to be our train food.
We had tickets to the Water Puppet Show at 3pm and so killed time relaxing at Hoan Kiem Lake. It did not take long before we were surrounded by high school kids who had a project to talk to foreigners in orders to improve their English. All very entertaining.
Water puppets had their origin centuries ago as entertainment using the water of the rice fields and now is adapted to a water tank in a theatre in Hanoi. The puppeteers stand behind a bamboo screen in waist deep water during the show. There were 15 short vignettes such as a boy fishing, farmers
working the rice fields and dragons. All very well done and entertaining. There was also a band performing traditional music . After that cultural experience, Kelly needed to have another Bia Hoi then it was time for early dinner of Bun Cha - barbecued pork with rice vermicelli- that left us glowing after Kelly added too much fresh garlic and chillies to the communal bowl!
Our day had been planned so there was sufficient time to walk to the train station, but the staff at the Impressive Hotel insisted that they provide a free taxi service for us - must be because we had them purchase our train tickets for us. Getting on the train was all very civillised - sit in the waiting room til the doors are opened onto the platform and then look for for numbered carriage and compartment. So much easier than the chaos that is Indian train stations!
So at 7:30pm, the train started rolling out of Hanoi station on its way to Hue - 14.5 hours away
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