A lot of beauty and a little bit of history, with some kayaking and food on the side.
Having not planned this trip, I thought $85 for the entire trip seemed reasonable at such short notice. The price included pick up, drop off, accommodation, meals & activities.
We set off from the Old Quarter at 8.30am in rickety little minibus that seemed spacious enough – until the aisle became a seat. Luckily the group wasn’t too large, and with a good mix of ages and nationalities, all went swimmingly.
Our bus took a rest stop at a service station/superstore. In order to find the bus after using the bathrooms, you had to make your way through the shop; which was filled with small Vietnamese women doing embroidery, oversized marble statues and other goods. Overseeing the shopping were enormous photographs of previous tourists who had made their way through the same shop, and shipped some gargantuan marble piece thousands of miles home. The place was overpriced to the teeth, and also suffered from too few bathrooms for the busloads of tourists.
We arrived at Ha Long Bay around 1pm, and had to do a lot of waiting whilst the tour guide arranged all the tickets and entry. Despite the tedium, our tour guide kept us well amused with his good English, deadpan humour and slightly nonsensical turn of phrase.
As a lone traveller, I had been warned about having to pay a single supplement for solo occupancy. Fortunately, I was instead allocated a room without an en suite, sans supplement. Unfortunately, as everyone else had en suites, I was sharing the bathroom with the crew. This would not have been an issue, but for the fact that they were all men. It is a truth universally acknowledged that any man in possession of any fortune, must be in want of some improved bathroom etiquette. I opted to sneak into other’s en suites when the chance arose. The scenery was, already, breathtakingly beautiful.
I had almost finished my lunch by the time I remembered I had intended to photograph it. I really cannot commend the crew enough for the extra vegetarian food they provided. To start were some scotch eggs, with purple potato-y goo replacing meat, followed by some tofu soaked in green tea and a plate of peanuts. This was in addition to the chips, rice, tofu in a sweet chilli tomato sauce and spinach that the table shared.
As we ate the boat moored up at our sleeping dock, our guide explained that the name Ha Long Bay translates as Descending Dragons. Whilst science declares that the distinctive islands are the result of 500 million years of limestone formation and erosion, the tour guide dismissed this as just theories. The bay’s name comes from an early Vietnamese legend. Just as Vietnam was starting out as a country, it was under a lot of attack. The gods sent dragons to protect the Vietnamese; dragons who would spit pearls and jewels at any seaborne invaders. Each jewel became an islet that makes up the distinctive Ha Long Bay seascape. After winning the battle, the mother Dragon decided to live in amongst the islets; thus she and her children descended and settled.
Many of the islets are hollow, full of caves, and one of the most popular to visit is the Thien Cung (Heavenly Place). The stalactites and stalagmites are truly spectacular; with some resembling a tortoise (bedecked with donations for good fortune) and complimentary male and female genitalia (our guide had a good giggle at these ones).
As impressive as the surroundings were, visiting a UNESCO world heritage site certainly brings some less attractive aspects. The sheer volume of tour groups taking the same route is similar to being on a conveyor belt, but with added selfie sticks and bottlenecks.
We next went kayaking. Being in the midst of one of the seven natural wonders of the world is one thing; crashing your kayak into it is another. We moored our kayaks together and went for a swim that was cut remarkably shot by said kayaks floating away. A near-sinking and near-decapitation later, we made it back in one piece; something the tour guide saw as inconsequential to the plight of the kayaks. Interestingly, we were expected to wear our life jackets at all times for safety reasons, though our kayak lacked seats, and another had a bit of a hole…
We took a sunset-lit cruise back to the boat, and dinner was served promptly on our return.
Featuring an odd eggy broth, another variety of veggie fare (including these faux-meats made from fruit with holes in them) and the much anticipated happy hour ‘disco.’
We took our beers to the roof and watched the stars, but were soon bullied into karaoke-ing with the crew. Vietnam is a big fan of karaoke. We had a final drink each whilst playing cards before retiring for the night.
I was one of the only people to venture out and see the sunrise, and for a beautiful moment I felt like the only person alive on the bay.
Breakfast was eggs and toast again, but juice came at a premium. The groups then split, with the 2 nighters heading to Cat Ba.
The rest of us took in some sightseeing and sunbathing around the bay before being treated a spring roll class. Unfortunately meat was on the menu so I just peered over everyone else’s shoulders like a creep.
We then had a final lunch before being hurried off the boat as one of the crew’s wives had just had their baby.
Unfortunately due to traffic from Hanoi, the coach back was late. Hundreds of fellow tourists hid in the shade, and clung to our ice creams. Again, there were boys with long hair playing Ed Sheeran, just like at Bondi beach. There was another stop at one of these bizarre superstore service stations, where the driver needed an extra-long rest break.
I arrived back in Hanoi with 3 hours to kill before the night bus to Sapa. I took myself to Mam restaurant to fortify myself, the 140,000₫ set vegetarian menu included spring rolls, noodles and veg, tofu in tomato sauce, and fruit to finish. Annoyingly a sprite was 30,000₫, as was a bottle of water, but I got a bag full of lychees for a late night snack/breakfast for 20,000₫.