How Long... Ha Long
13.07.2012 - 18.08.2012 36 °C
Probably what I had been looking forward to most in South East Asia was saved till last. Ha Long Bay is a world heritage site and one of the new 7 Wonders of Nature. Legend says that the Vietnamese people called to the gods for a dragon to help them in battle with the Chinese. A mother dragon with her child dragon were sent from the heavens, but when they came to Ha Long Bay they gave up on fighting and stayed because it was so beautiful. Those dragons, you can never trust them!!
So our final overnight bus from Hue brought us into Vietnam’s cultural capital and historical capital of the North, Hanoi. Checking into a hotel we quickly scouted around for a company to spend a night on a junk boat in the bay. There are around 1500 boats that operate in Ha Long Bay ranging from super luxury to super terrible. As enjoying a night in the Bay is a once in a lifetime experience, we were keen to make sure we steered clear of the latter. We settled on a company who were good value but promising a high level of service. We will see if they deliver!
The bus picked us up from the hotel and an hour or so into the trip from Hanoi we made a shopping stop. Wasting 40 minutes sat around not wanting to buy any overpriced handcrafts, I would have much preferred spending this time relaxing on the boat. Getting back into the bus the landscape started to get more dramatic as we passed plenty of rice paddies framed with limestone mountains in the distance
Out at Ha Long City Port, there were swathes of tourists and just as many boats chugging around making their pickups before heading straight out again. A lot of the boats looked less than seaworthy, in desperate need of a paint job and packed to the brim. We had sinking feelings ourselves that our trip might not be too good. Fortunately though as a boat approached the jetty, it looked promising and with relief we were asked to board the boat. There were only 14 of us on our boat which was a really good group size to make it not crowded on board but also friendly enough for a chat with someone. The fit out on the boat was very good too, high quality wooden interior, nice cabins with air-conditioning and some good sun decks we were instantly happy that our $55 was a bargain. Actually, we got told not to say how much we paid to the other people as some had paid double that amount.
Our welcome lunch onboard
We immediately sat down and enjoyed a really tasty and filling lunch of seafood, fish, chicken and vegetables as we crossed from the mainland to the archipelago of 2000 islands that sit off the coastline. After finishing the lunch we got to finally sit on deck and enjoy the views as we started to weave in and out of the dramatic islands.
We pulled into a bay where we stopped at a cave, known as Surprising Cave. The first thing we noticed was the amount of boats around. Any tranquillity of the place is quickly lost with hundreds of boats moving in and out to drop off loads of tourists. Unfortunately it becomes part and parcel of being an incredible place that so many people come to see it, us included.
After we got off our boat we walked up to the cave entrance and our guide told us the legend of the Ha Long Bay dragons and the history of the caves. Once we got through the first part of the cave, we found out why the cave is referred to as the ‘Surprising Cave’ before walking around the rest of the impressive cavern. We have seen a fair few caves on the year long journey, but even so, this one was still very good.
The view from the cave out to the bay was quite nice too and we got the obligatory photos before waiting for our boat to collect us again amongst the fruit sellers.
Back on the boat we spent the afternoon kayaking around the bay for a short 30 minutes of allocated time before heading to an island where we walked up a few hundred steps to a vantage point over the bay. The view was great, even with the small armada of boats that were raiding the bay. We had a chance to swim at the island before getting back on the boat, however closer inspection of the water turned us away from that idea. The scenery of Ha Long Bay is stunning, but unfortunately the imprint that tourism is leaving on it is sad to see.
We moored up soon after and enjoyed another good meal onboard and watched the sun set behind a big storm cloud which cast shadows across the sky before putting on a light show of its own. We played some cards into the night in the tranquillity of the bay before a comfortable sleep in the airconditioned cabins.
As we were walking through the cave earlier in the day I was looking up at the ceiling and busted my toe on a step, leaving a bloody hole in the end of it. Luckily there was a Dentist on board... Mateo’s profession of pulling teeth also lends itself nicely to patching up toes it seems :-)
We set our alarms for sunrise in the morning. It wasn’t bad, especially seeing it over the landscape of Ha Long Bay, but we should have got up about half an hour earlier to get the best colour of the morning.
The rest of the day we got to just relax on the boat with only a quick stop on the way back to the port. The scenery for the two days was absolutely amazing and we had managed to get some good luck with our boat, but the crowded feel of the bay with all the boats unfortunately distracts you a little bit.
Our plan for after the boat trip was to get ourselves across to Cat Ba Island which is the biggest of the islands in Ha Long so we could enjoy the scenery by our self for a while. While we were on the junk boat, we asked the guide for info of how to get there. Unfortunately in Vietnam, everyone can organise stuff for you and get a healthy commission from doing so. Therefore giving you information on getting somewhere by yourself doesn’t pay any dividends. So we first got told that he could sort out a hotel and boat over to Cat Ba (The most expensive way naturally). After we said that we wanted to catch the public ferry that we read about, he said it would be very hard and hotels would be full over on the island so we couldn’t just sort that out when we arrived. After constantly turning down his offers and friendly advice regarding how difficult it would be, we finally convinced him that we were happy to just get ourselves over there and all we needed doing was dropping off at an intersection on the road back to Hanoi. At our final lunch stop at the port, the guide told us that he couldn’t drop us at the road, and we would have to find our own way there (even though it was on the way!!). Fed up with misinformation and his offers anyway, we shared taxi to the docks where the public ferry departed from.
For about $2 each we got to Cat Ba on the public ferry (opposed to the $20 each that our guide could have sorted for us) and it wasn’t overly difficult after getting pointed in the right direction. Naturally we were the odd ones out on the boat, as it was full of Vietnamese with only 3 other western tourists on the ferry. The funny thing about the ferry crossing, is that it its route was probably even more impressive than the Junk boat route!
The Cat Ba Ferry
We had to negotiate a share taxi (with the other westerners) at the northern port on Cat Ba island, which quickly came down from 500,000 dong each to 20,000 dong each once we pointed at the sign that showed the bus fares to Cat Ba town should be 15,000. Once in town we rented 3 motorbikes and set off to find somewhere simple to stay on a nice quiet beach somewhere on the island. Before we set off, we wanted to get some ice for our carton of beers that we had been carrying around since Hanoi (we got it for the boat but was not allowed it on there as they had an overcharging Bar for drinks). The best ideas come when there is the greatest need, and we solved the problem of warm beers quite nicely...
The moto luggage compartment, a perfect cooler box
We hit the road and drove out through some beautiful scenery. We came across a little cove with not another person around and parked up the bikes, got out some ice cold beers and enjoyed them on the beach with a swim to follow. As we were leaving town, Heloise was one of the other westerners who was on the ferry, and she had rented a bike too so she joined our little convoy for the afternoon.
Our nice little deserted cove
The 6 of us got back on our bikes and continued on looking for somewhere to sleep, we didn’t have much luck though by the time we reached the end of the road, so turned back to head for Cat Ba town for a place there. Unfortunately Heloise, had picked up a flat tyre on the last stretch of road, but we weren’t far from a place that could fix it. When she went to get her money and phone out of the storage compartment on the bike she realised that they were missing. She had left her stuff in the bikes while we were at the cove and someone must have opened up the bikes while we were down at the beach!
Getting the tyre changed held us up from seeing the sunset, and we ended up riding back in the dark. We found a place to stay for a reasonable rate and good enough rooms before getting some food along the main road.
Love a bit of ‘Fried Crap’ in my spring rolls
View from our rooms in the morning
Back to just the 5 of us again in the morning we stocked up the bikes with more beer and ice and headed into the centre of the island to the national park. There was an hour walk in the national park up to a vantage point. It turned out to be the most sweaty, laborious walk that we have probably done in the year of travel with 38 degree heat and 90% humidity hard conditions to walk in for 10 minutes, let alone an hour of solid uphill. The inland views from the top were good, but not as stunning as they would have been looking off into the sea with the surrounding islands. We just welcomed the wind at the peak which gave us a moments respite from the sweat!
Ice box and a cup holder too, i’m getting me one of these back home
We then stopped at hospital cave, which was an interesting stop. During the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese built a pretty extensive hospital in this cave with some smart defences and escape systems. We were shown around the cave and given the history, but the guide was a lot more interested in showing us his collection of coins and notes from around the world. He had a banknote from 38 countries in his wallet which he showed us, but it was his US$2 note from 1967 that was his pride and joy!
The entrance to hospital cave
The view from hospital cave
After lunch back in town, we headed back out to the west coast for sunset. Unfortunately the sky wasn’t as clear as it was the prior day, so we didn’t get too great a sunset. More ice cold beers made up for that however!
On the final morning we headed over to some of the beaches close to town for a final swim before getting a ferry and bus back to Hanoi. We spent a final night together with nice food, incredibly cheap beers, cards and plenty of laughs as we all went in different directions the following day. Tanya and I caught a flight to Hong Kong, sorry to be leaving the other 3 behind after a great few weeks of travel with awesome companions!
Daniel – Seeing Halong Bay was a fitting finale to South East Asia in terms of the amazing scenery. Vietnam has been an interesting country with much more of a scramble for the tourist dollar making it so difficult to do things by our self. Luckily having our little group always made the difficulty of getting out on our own worth it every time!
Tanya – Halong bay is an absolutely stunning place and we wanted to get amongst the islands for the best possible sunset and sunrise views which had to be from a boat surrounded by the beautiful scenery. Although the Vietnamese don’t seem to understand independent travel, we finally managed to break away and the car ferry across to cat ba island probably provided the best scenery of the bay without hundreds of tourist boats.