In 1998, a Vietnamese colleague invited me to visit Hanoi while we were both attending a conference in Guangzhou. There was a travel booth at the hotel there and he picked up a pamphlet of Halong Bay, and promised that I would like Halong Bay. Back then, it wasn’t easy to visit Vietnam and I made a non-committal reply. That invitation, however, lingered at the back of my mind since then and I finally made it last November, 16 years later, and no longer in contact with that colleague.
There are so many types of cruise ‘junks’ plying Halong Bay that it’s impossible to pick a reputable one which is not only safe, but nice as well. The price is a guide but not a very good one. The website TripAdvisor provided many good tips but in the end, we relied on our hotel in Hanoi to help us book. There were not many cruise offering triple room so we were lucky to get ours on V’Spirit on a three-day-two-night cruise.
Travelling from Hanoi to Halong takes approximately 4 hours, so it really makes no sense to go on a day cruise. We were picked up at 9am by the cruise bus who went around picking up other passengers from different hotels. There was Vikash from India, Andy and Barney from Seattle, Karen and her daughter Christine also from Seattle but new to the other couple. Also on the same cruise was an Australian family of four who had spent four months in Bali and another European couple with their 9-month old baby.
There was a toilet break stop at a Handicraft Centre for disabled people. There, we witnessed disabled people doing embroidery. This centre was obviously targeted at tourists, and we were later told by our guide in Hanoi that this was not a legitimate centre and its purpose was to con the tourists. Unknown to us then, the prices for souvenirs and food stuff were almost double that at Hanoi night market and supermarket.
We arrived at the jetty and I was surprised at the crowd. The ladies’ toilet had a line all the way to the lobby. We were led to a sitting area, served tea and waited for our turn to board. We were transported by small bum boats to the bigger ship. I looked anxiously around, keeping my fingers crossed that some old rusted ones are not ours, while at the same time hoping perhaps ours is that luxurious one with private balconies. You can imagine the number of ships around. We were told there are 7000 ships catering to tourist cruises at Halong Bay.
At the end, our ship was in between, a small 14-cabin with dining hall.
Our room was the biggest at the end of the boat with a double bed and a single bed and a small bathroom/toilet.
After settling in our room, we were served lunch on board. We were assigned seats and it was awkward sharing a communal meal with strangers. But the food was delicious and generous. The only problem, which we were already warned by TripAdvisor, was that all drinks were chargeable. So there were some who refused to pay. I scanned through and decided to order a can of beer (US$2), the cheapest on the menu while my companions ordered fruit juice (US$2 – 3).
The ship started sailing and we were given our itinerary. After lunch, we would be visiting ‘Surprising Cave’, with a cavity so large it’s surprising. I had already done enough caving at Mulu Caves in June to not be taken surprised by the cave (https://vickychong.wordpress.com/2013/08/05/sarawak-in-june-adventure-caving-in-mulu/). What surprised me was the number of tourists, like ants snaking into hole from afar. I didn’t fancy squeezing with those people but I have no choice. The walk up the steps was slow as groups of people paused to take photos. I was surprised that being a UNESCO site, as compared to Mulu, there was no crowd control, and tourists could touch the limestones.
After the cave visit, we were dropped off a beach at dusk, where we could swim or climb up a hill to see the sight. We decided to climb the hill to get photos of sunset. The weather had been rather cloudy until then when we spotted the sun. We were all in slippers so navigating the trail up in near darkness was quite difficult. The vertical climb, about 300m, left us panting and I was glad for my practise hike in KL in October. The view up there was worth the effort.
As night fell, we left the hill, making our way down slippery slope in total darkness lighted by the full moon. We made our way back to the bum boat which would take us back to the cruise ship for dinner. There, we met another group of passengers who had spent their second day on board and they had a different itinerary. Those who had signed up for the two-day tour would leave us tomorrow after lunch with this group.
After dinner, we sat around the hall playing games. The guide, who asked us to call him ‘T’ told us we could do squid fishing and I eagerly went to try. After one hour, I decided there was no squid in the sea and went up deck to enjoy the view.
With no TV, no smart phone connection and no internet, it was a perfect time to meditate under the moon.
What can I say? After one day, I fell in love with Halong Bay.