One of the only things Esther and I had booked prior to arriving in Vietnam was our boat trip to Ha Long Bay. We knew we wanted to experience this UNESCO World Heritage site and we had read plenty of reviews online which pointed towards the fact that the quality of tours was mixed to say the least. So, we continued to research and read recommendations about tour companies, boats, tour duration, cost and so on.
In the end we actually booked via our hotel in Hanoi. We stayed at the Especen Hotel and they advertised a couple of tours with Galaxy Cruises on their website. I was apprehensive about booking through the hotel initially; everything in my gut told me that this relatively budget hotel would be trying to rip us off and we would end up on some dodgy boat having a slightly awful time in one of the most beautiful places in the world. However, Tripadvisor reviews were positive so we booked a two day, one night tour for $159 each which was a lot of money considering how cheap everything else in Vietnam was! I mean, we were staying in a hotel which would be maybe 3 star in the UK for $8 each per night..
Ha Long Bay is around 4 hours drive from Hanoi, so we were collected promptly from our hotel in a thankfully air-conditioned minibus to start the journey. Our tour guide (whose name I have completely forgotten – I’m really not good with them) spoke fantastic English, made us feel very welcome and talked to us about the history of Vietnam and Ha Long Bay for the first hour or so on the bus. He also told us not to buy drinks from the people selling on the water in Ha long Bay as all of their goods would be imported from China and would be bad for us. He warned us off Chinese products in general, showing us a lovely picture of a sore, infected scalp where wearing a Chinese helmet had “caused hair loss” and the irritation. I found this quite amusing, but I took it as a symbol of how proud the Vietnamese are of their country and their produce (as well as trying to get us to buy everything from the bar on board!).
It was lovely driving out of the city through the countryside and small towns, although the road networks in Vietnam are not what I am used to. Bumpy to say the least! And then there’s the driving style. It’s totally acceptable to overtake on the inside, outside, into the path of an 18T lorry, cutting up others and so on. Felt very dangerous at first, but you soon learn not to watch the road in front of you if you can avoid it! The drive included the most frustrating part of the tour for me; a stop halfway at what appeared to be purely a tourist trap shop. It sold a variety of Vietnamese goods: artwork, fans, marble statues! All with a fixed price, which was unheard of in the rest of the country, which only exacerbated my belief that we were being taken for a ride. I do not like paying over the odds at all, so this left me a bit disgruntled. But I was still so tempted by silk thread pictures which school children make there. It had a feel of enforced labour, but then again perhaps that’s just my Western judgement.
A couple of hours later we arrived at Ha Long City Harbour and boarded the little boat which transferred us to the Galaxy Premier junk boat. By this point I was already in awe of my surroundings, and we were still in a relatively industrial, busy port! It was just hard to not be floored by the beauty of the bay that stretched out before us.
Our cabin was very luxurious. Wood panelling everywhere with beautiful paint work, a large and clean bathroom, comfortable beds and the all important sea view! We soon dumped our bags, freshened up and headed up to the top deck to enjoy the scenery and get to know some of our fellow passengers a bit more. The average age of the guests was slightly older than Esther and I, but we befriended two Australian couples who were both very different to each other, but great conversation and company.
Soon after boarding it was time for lunch. I use the word “lunch” loosely. It was an unexpected seven course feast. We had the biggest prawns I had ever seen, some delicious spicy beef, chicken curry, noodles, raw papaya salad, fruit and more. It was delicious and way more than I needed for lunch, but of course I polished off most of my share! Now I’m not a lover of seafood, but being in Vietnam has genuinely changed this. I still don’t like octopus, but like many things, I realised I am just a seafood snob. I like the good prawns. And these salt-encrusted prawns were the exceptional kind. Pete and Deb even told us that we should eat the whole thing, head, legs, shell and all! Well, that was just as alien to me as eating a prawn at all, so I launched straight in. Crunchy, salty, fleshy and incredibly tasty. I was converted.
The afternoon saw some more relaxation time, then we went to a floating kayak place somewhere among the 2,000 limestone karst islands. Esther and I laboured into our life jackets (“how are we going to paddle with these big things on?”), I deliberated about bringing my shiny, new camera onto a piece of fibreglass that would be at most 20cm above the salty water, and then we inelegantly climbed into our kayak. And we were off! There were only about 8 boats in our group and we toured the islands for 90 minutes or so. It was surprisingly easy to paddle given the extreme heat and humidity, but I think I was so distracted by the beautiful islands we were passing by. We paddled through caves; some of which were treacherous with low roofs and hidden rocks under the water, and were lucky enough to see some wild monkeys and a lagoon full of jellyfish! There were no junk boats or other motorised boats anywhere, and we only saw one other kayaking group during the whole experience. I felt like I had come to an idyllic, unexplored corner of the world. I loved it.
After the kayaking we went swimming. Well at first there were some spectacular attempts at diving and bombing into the water by those of us who are confident swimmers. There were quite a few guests on our boat who could not swim, or had a fear of the water and simply couldn’t let go of the side of the boat even when wearing a lifejacket. We soon realised that given the area used to be a limestone plain, the water has dissolved this and now has a high level of salt. Hence we just floated. I couldn’t have drowned if I had tried!
Believe it or not, after freshening up it was time for more food! Well, we had the chance to make spring rolls; how cheeky, getting the guests to do the food preparation! It was good fun though, and I felt like a pro as I’d had plenty of practice at the Vietnamese Street Food class I went to in Bristol a couple of months ago! There was another 6 or 7 course feast and a few beers alongside, before our guide provided us with some entertainment in the form of magic tricks. Now I’m a skeptical and inquisitive person, so I like to try and work the tricks out. Sure, I worked out how he got his phone inside a plastic bottle. I think I know how he pulled razors out of his throat with string. But there were some where the slight of hand was so quick and precise I was very impressed!
Soon after the magic and dinner we left the confines of the air-conned dining room and braved the heat and humidity of the top deck again. All of the boats have to anchor at the same part of Ha Long Bay overnight, so we got a chance to check out the competition. As it was the off-season there were only 30 or so boats, but in the high season apparently there are hundreds. Watching the sunset between the karst islands whilst sipping a Hanoi beer is one of my favourite moments of this cruise. I took a little break to try squid fishing off the back of the boat under a red light which apparently attracts them. After 20 minutes of dipping a hook into the water I was quite bored so I headed back upstairs to take in the surroundings some more. I was so warm, full and comfortable that I struggled to keep my eyes open. I could have quite happily slept on the sun lounger all night I think, but at around 9pm I headed to the room to get some proper sleep. Besides, I had plans to get up at 4.30am for the sunrise.
Well that didn’t happen.
I woke at around 6am; the Aussies had been up for an hour or so already and breakfast was being prepared. We were under sharp instructions that we were to be on the transport boat by 8am to get to the caves before all of the other tourist boats. Ok, Captain! I think we went to the Hang Sung Sot caves, but I can’t be sure as I don’t think we were ever told. They were accessed by climbing a couple of hundred stairs I know that much! Even by 8am the temperature was pushing the low thirties with near 100% humidity so this in itself was a real challenge! But the climb was worth it! Some the caves were absolutely breathtaking. Our guide explained how some local people used to live in these caves as they were cooler, and would live off of the land and the sea. He also compared many rocks to the sacred animals (remember: dragon, unicorn, turtle and phoenix) although a lot took a fair amount of squinting. And whenever we suggested one was a dragon we got turned down; we westerners obviously didn’t have the eye, but Esther, Warren and myself had a lot of fun giggling our way through the vast chambers. This was also a point where we noticed just how differently women are regarded in Vietnam; it was ok for the guy from Myanmar to joke about the penis shaped rock, but when Esther mentioned the word it was met with awkward silence from our guide. It was surprising at the time given how westernized a lot of the tour guides are so I assumed they would be ok with women using the same language as men, but apparently not.
After the cave trip we saw a fishing village from the distance, although apparently most have been cleared from Ha Long Bay and rehoused inland somewhere. The reasons I couldn’t quite fathom, but I think it was do with them attracting non-certified boats who would sell unsolicited to the guests on the boats. We went back to the junk boat, packed our bags and then headed to the top deck to enjoy the cruise back to the main harbour. I appreciated that the Captain steered us a route that was away from the main route where there was a procession of tourist boats heading back. It meant we were luck enough to enjoy even more isolated views of islands, local trawling boats and just generally enjoy our remaining time in this incredible corner of the world before we headed back to Hanoi.
Ha Long Bay was one of my favourite parts of Vietnam. Yes, it is comparatively expensive to everything else. But there are not enough superlatives to describe just how beautiful, serene and idyllic it is. A truly awe-inspiring place.