Wednesday, August 16, 2017
August 13 - Halong Bay
After enjoying a very good breakfast at the hotel, the tour bus collected us promptly at 8 am and we were off on our adventure to Halong Bay. This region is known as Vietnam’s greatest showpiece, so we were very excited to be finishing up our unforgettable Vietnam explorations here. We chose a company called Apricot Tours and would be going on a two day, one night trip.
The bus trip took nearly four hours, which included a 30 minute rest stop at this giant, overpriced tourist gift shop, which had surprisingly clean bathrooms. Similar to the caves, this trip is one that nearly every visitor to Vietnam will take, so we had no preconceptions that it would be quaint or otherwise non-touristy, so I think we were ready for it. During the ride the tour guide David had each of us introduce ourselves to the group, which was a pretty good idea as we would be spending the next 24 hours with each other. There was one large group of Australians, two separate groups of Spaniards, an English couple with two young kids and a Dutch family with two teenage kids. They seemed like a very interesting lot.
The bus pulled into the port area and rather than the dozens of huge ships I was expecting, there were hundreds. In fact, the tour guide would later tell me that there are about 600 tourist and support boats in Halong Bay. So why is this bay so special? Well, it is because of the nearly 2,000 limestone islands that decorate the bay and provide for such stunning scenery that is so otherworldly it barely looks real. Most of the islands are covered in thick jungle, and many have hongs and huge caves. The bay has been a UNESCO world heritage site since 1994.
We were loaded into a small boat, given lifejackets, and told we would be ferrying out to our ship. The variety of boats in the harbor was remarkable, from five story luxury cruise ships to worm-eaten wooden beasts that looked in imminent danger of sinking. Ours was somewhere in the middle of the quality scale with one level containing cabins, a second level that held the restaurant and crew quarters, and the open top floor of the boat which had a lovely bar, loungers, and a dance floor of sorts.
The crew directed us to our cabin and, besides being beautifully furnished and decorated, it was much larger than we expected, with two queen sized beds and a huge bathroom. And instead of a musty, mouldy boat smell there was an exotic hint of cinnamon in the air and a sweet air conditioning unit in one corner that we were told would kick in at 7 pm and run until the morning.
We pulled anchor and we were away. All of the guests were seated in the restaurant enjoying welcome drinks as the bar staff started serving lunch. We were so consumed with meeting the other passengers and enjoying our lunch that we hardly noticed the scenery around us until we were well into the bay and nearly surrounded by the jagged shards of limestone reaching up to the sky. I finished up lunch and went up to the top deck to have a better look. What I saw was a real life armada of ships headed for the same narrow entrance to a bay, and the captains of the dozens of vessels that surrounded us were driving their boats just like they drive their scooters in Hanoi – cutting others off, driving too fast, and following no particular rules of the water.
The crew got us anchored in a giant, sheltered bay, in the company of many other boats. Our tour guide David told us to get our swimsuits ready as we were going to be first visiting the largest cave on Halong Bay and then the beach for a swim. So we gathered our things and piled into the “dingy” which was a wooden vessel that carried at least 25 people and was towed behind the ship. The helmsmen piloted us a short ways over to a large dock and let us off. Here we found a small ticket booth where our guide purchased tickets for everybody and then we started ascending the stairs, but we couldn’t go too fast because it was jammed with people. As expected, this was a very, very busy place with hundreds of tourists everywhere you looked, and that mid-afternoon sun was baking them all like gingerbread cookies.
The cave was enormous, and after we walked through it we were actually feeling a twinge of regret at doing the big cave tour at Son Trach, as this cave was just as impressive. Towards the end of the cave there was a series of steep staircases that led outside, and it seemed that the temperature went up by half a degree with every step I took. There was one older Dutch man who was sweating buckets, swaying from side to side, and eventually collapsed on the stairs, completely overwhelmed by the heat and strain. I ran back down and helped him climb up the stairs safely. He thanked me profusely for saving his life, and immediately wrote me into his will as a token of his gratitude. He was, of course, a billionaire so my retirement may come earlier than expected.
The boat picked us up and shuttled us over to the one and only beach in the area, but it was a little hard to see the sand for all of the touristos on it. The four of us found a small patch of beach to leave our bag and towels and we jumped in for a cool, invigorating swim, which was actually a hot, mildly refreshing swim as the water temperature was that of an autumn hot tub. But it still felt great.
After our allotted 60 minutes we returned to the rendezvous point and awaited our dingy chauffeur. By now we had gotten to know a few of our fellow passengers, specifically the English family – Kieran, Aisha and their 7 and 9 year old boys Kamil and Amar. It looked like Magnus may have finally found somebody to play Magic the Gathering with him so we were all thrilled.
Back at the boat, it was happy hour so I grabbed a cigar, fired it up, scored a cold Bia Hanoi and got comfortable on the top deck. I spent some time talking to the group of Aussies and then met two other boys who turned out to be Canadian – one from Calgary and the other from Quebec City. They were there for a quick holiday before continuing onto Taiwan for a badminton tournament, as they were pretty skilled with the birdies.
More and more passengers started to gather and soon the top deck was full of people drinking, laughing, and taking photos of the sun setting over the mountain tops. The view from the deck was extraordinary, and the temperature had dropped a few degrees, making it much more comfortable. Ana was feeling so good she took advantage of happy hour and ordered three cocktails for the price of two. That Ana - always a value shopper.
When the dinner call came, I was surprised because I thought we had already eaten – those Hanoi beers were clearly playing tricks on my mind. So we pulled ourselves away from the bar and got settled in the restaurant. Ana and I sat with the Dutch family while our new English friends took one for the team and sat with the four children, amidst all the Magic cards spread out on the table. The food was excellent, company was amiable, and conversation was stimulating. The happy hour wobbly-pops had lubricated the social situation, so we were all getting to know each other a little better. After dinner we hung out with our new English buds and then the Spanish contingent, practicing our Spanish and hearing a lot about Barcelona. While we were speaking the Espanol, the kids were fishing for squid off the back of the boat, and one of the young English lads actually caught one!
The night finished up how it should on 24 hour power trips such as this – dancing to Latin music with Spaniards on top of the boat!