Ha Long Bay

Posted from Hai Phong, Vietnam.

 

Welcome to Ha Long Bay.

Welcome to Ha Long Bay.

Choosing a company to book a Ha Long Bay Cruise with is an arduous task. There are far too many scams in Hanoi and online that it’s difficult to know the real deal or if you’re getting a deal. The hostel I was at, Hanoi Backpackers, offered a few different packages for Ha Long Bay, but I had it set in my mind that I didn’t want a backpacker-style boat. I wanted to spend a bit of many and have at least a three-star experience – as I doubt I could afford an overnight boat trip for these prices anywhere else.

I went online and decided to book through the Rising Dragon Hotel chain. They had a connection with Galaxy Cruises and the reviews I had read were all good. I booked in for $99 plus tax (though some people on my boat got it a bit cheaper) and I felt good about it. My northern trek in Vietnam was to be the most expensive part of my journey.

The big issue, however, it’s February and that means it’s winter. The weather sucks. It had been raining since I got to Hanoi and the forecast was bleak for the fore-seeable future. It was going to be cold. So my pants, hoodie and scarf I bought in Can Tho would finally come in handy.

They call it a humanitarian centre, but in reality it's more of a sweatshop. These people slave away all day making needle-point crafts that are amazing, expensive and sometimes quite large.

They call it a humanitarian centre, but in reality it’s more of a sweatshop. These people slave away all day making needle-point crafts that are amazing, expensive and sometimes quite large.

The minivan picked me up last at my hotel and we began the 3.5 hour journey to Ha Long Bay. Some guys I met in Hoi An were on the boat, so I knew it was going to be an interesting journey. The van stopped half way to our destination at a tourist mall where we are encouraged to buy the same junk I’ve been seeing for three weeks at over-inflated prices.

But as the limestone formations of the bay begin to creep into sight I take a deep breath – it truly is remarkable. We pull up to the dock with about 200 other tourists and our guide, Ba, gets our tickets, introduces us to the captain and we head over to our junk boat, The Dragon King, via a shuttle boat.

Your first clue of how many boats will actually be in the bay during your stay.

Your first clue of how many boats will actually be in the bay during your stay.

We have an elaborate lunch with at least six dishes and rice before they assign us our rooms. I paid for a shared room as the single supplement was another $30. But seeing as it’s low season, I got my own room. My cabin was immaculate. Wood everywhere. A rain shower. King-sized bed. This was the best room I’ve had yet. I’m over the moon.

My cabin aboard the Dragon King Cruise.

My cabin aboard the Dragon King Cruise.

We head into the bay along with at least 50 other cruise-boats, passing numerous day tour boats along the way. Ha Long Bay is one of the seven wonders of the natural world. When our boat winds our way to an enormous cave passing reaching towers of limestone it’s obvious why. The cave is outstanding. There’s graffiti in some places, preserved but inspiring as one dated to 1909. I’m sure back then it was a lot less touristy. These days there’s lighting, ropes and stone steps to make it more accessible. I would’ve liked to have seen it in1909.

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From the cave we are given the option to go kayaking. I go with one of the Germans and we paddle through a tiny cave and visit a fishing village. The dogs at the village are protective and bark at our presence. The inhabitants seem used to people snooping around. What saddens us is the litter in the water. It’s all around. Bags and plastic spoons. Chop sticks and even a diaper. And then we pass a floating turd. I suppose when you live on a floating house there’s only one place to go. But yuck. When we return to the dock my kayak-mate’s phone slides out into the water as he’s disembarking. I gasp and say, “your phone!” And in a flash he was in the water, submerged, grabbing his phone. The boat guys laughed. I was in disbelief. And my German friend was soaked. He stripped down to his undies, did one last jump in the water to show off.

Exploring the fishing village. Sight of the "floating turd."

Exploring the fishing village. Sight of the “floating turd.”

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We head back to our boat and are told the hot water and heaters have been turned on so we can shower and get ready for dinner in a few hours. It takes a little while for my five-gallon water tank to heat up, so my shower wasn’t quite hot. But I did indulge in using the complimentary hair-dryer, a device I’ve not used in over a month. Dinner again was elaborate and tasty. Steel fish, giant prawns, spring rolls, fish chowder, French fries, rice and cabbage. We tried some squid fishing afterwards, with no success, and then we got to playing some cards and yahtzee. And drinking beer, of course.

The boats don’t really go that far. It’s not like we toured around a bunch of the lime-stone formations for hours and hours. Basically we dock and then use our shuttle boat to get to the points. That was a bit of a let down. We anchored for the night in the middle of a bay along with at least 25 other boats. In retrospect, a day trip would’ve been probably good enough as you see the exact same things – minus the food.

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The next day we had a 7 a.m. breakfast before heading to one of the islands to hike a never-ending calf-burning staircase to a viewpoint. After numerous embarrassing breaks to lower my heartbeat, and watching people far older than me clamber on past without so much as a huff, I finally made it to the top. It was beautiful, but such a pity that the clouds and mist hampered the vista.

We returned to the boat, had to pack up and check out of our cabins by 9:30 as they needed to be cleaned for the next group.

Our boat, along with about 100 other boats wound our way through the rock formations back to the pier. We were given a quick cooking class where we rolled our own (to be deep-fried) spring rolls and got ready for our last meal aboard the boat before heading to shore, the van and our journey back to Hanoi.

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Ha Long Bay is beautiful and a must-see, but try to go in the summer or in November when it’s the sunniest so clouds and mist can’t obstruct your view. Am I glad I went? Yes. Should I have opted for a cheaper trip. Nah. I honestly enjoyed sleeping on a boat overnight. One more first checked off the list.

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