Monday, 22 October 2012

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

In January 2007, I went to Vietnam with my older sister. It was a very different trip - we started in Hanoi, then went about 2 hours south to a city called Ninh Binh. We circled around to the coast, to  Haiphong, and then we went to Ha Long Bay. We didn't get a tour, we just showed up, and this was possibly a misstep on our part, with some interesting results...

We went to the docks on the day we arrived, and booked a tour for the following day. We stayed in a random hotel in Ha Long City that night. (We actually spent the evening out on the beach with some beers, which was kind of nice. The enormous rats in the drains nearby were less nice...) The following day, we were brought to our "private" boat, only to find the tour operator had booked two other tourists on it with us, and they'd paid about a third what we paid. Lunch was also not included, we had to go and buy bread and Oreos and Coke before we left.

The trip itself was not too bad - we followed all the other tour boats out to the islands, and we got to sit on the roof of the boat. We went to see the Cave of Wonders, and then another island where we climbed to the lookout at the top. When we got back to land, we went to dinner, and the owner of the restaurant asked us what we had been doing. We showed him the boat tour operator's card, and he took one look and told us it was 'mafia'. Now, he may have been referring to the whole "private boat that actually had other tourists on it" rip-off, but... Well, we decided it was good enough that we got out in one piece.

Not actually our boat - this is a fancier version.
Four years later, I like to think that B and I benefited slightly from my previous experience. We booked a tour with the Kangaroo Cafe in Hanoi. (Their website is a little eye-bending, but they really provided an excellent, high quality tour for us. The owner, Max, was super-helpful and friendly.) Despite the 2007 experience, I had always thought staying overnight on Ha Long Bay would be kind of amazing, so the tour we picked out was actually two nights; one on the boat, and one at Cat Ba Island resort, where, apparently, we would get to see monkeys.

So, we showed up at the Cafe at about 7am, ready for a bus to take us to the tour boat at Ha Long Bay. We had four other tourists with us, all British - a couple, and a pair of young guys. They were all travelling through Asia, and, as happens so often with randoms you meet, especially when you're sharing meals, it was pretty easy for us all to get along. We also had a tour guide, who was very nice but told some kind of appalling jokes.

Unfortunately, on the two-hour drive out to Ha Long Bay, the weather was already turning. We'd been lucky so far, to come to Vietnam in monsoon season and not really be affected by the rain. (The storms were downright pleasant in Hoi An.) We boarded the boat, explored the rooms we were assigned, then went to the dining room for a fairly amazing three-course lunch. The boat was still moored in the harbour, which didn't really bother anyone until our tour guide came and let us know that the coast guard wasn't giving us permission to leave. Apparently there had been one too many tourist boats capsizing in the heavy weather, and they'd prefer not to risk it.

The news cast a bit of a downer on the next few hours, but we still hung around and started to get to know each other. Nothing like shared disappointment to bring a bunch of strangers together. Outside, the weather was definitely pretty dark and gloomy, but the rain seemed more like showers, rather than downpour. The British folks especially couldn't understand why we couldn't go out in this; they claimed that in Britain, this weather would be classified as a nice day!

Then, at around 3pm, the coast guard gave us the go ahead to leave! They got the boat going, and we chugged out of the habour, into the bay. It was still raining, so photo opportunities were limited, which was a shame since the sight of the dark, mountain-like islands appearing through the grey cloud and rain was fairly picturesque. (Maybe for someone with a better camera than mine...)

On the first day, I think we were supposed to tour a few of the islands. Due to the delay, we only made it to the Cave of Wonders. We got there just in time, right before it close, which actually meant that all the other tourists were gone and we had the place to ourselves. It was exactly the same combination of amazing rock formations and hilarious Vegas lighting that I remembered from the trip with my sister.

Pretty nice digs...nice view...
We returned to the boat, and set of for a bay between some islands where we would moor for the night. The staff served dinner - another three delicious three course meal in the dining room - and we had quite a few drinks. B and I hadn't really been partying during our trip, and this wasn't strictly partying anyway, but it was the closest we got. And honestly, drinking on the rooftop deck of a tour boat in Ha Long Bay is not a bad way to spend some time, let me tell you. (The drinks weren't included in the cost of the tour, so at the end of the night we got a bill we had to settle. We were alarmed to find it came to almost 1,700,000 dong - by far the most we'd spent on anything in Vietnam, excluding tours and travel tickets. Of course, once we converted the currency, we realised it was all of $75, and we've spent far more than that at bars in Brisbane, so it's all a matter of perspective.)

So, we spent the evening on the boat, mostly on the roof, looking at the sky and what we could see of the islands around us. There were several other tour boats moored in the bay with us, including one or two that seemed to be having dance parties or karaoke or something. Snatches of music kept floating across the water when the wind was blowing the right way.
The karaoke coming from the boat on the left
was kind of terrifying.

In the morning, we went for a swim before breakfast. The water was the same salt as you get in any ocean, and the diving competitions we had off the first and second levels of the boat kind of negated any ideas of reverence or mysticism, but something about swimming in a world heritage site still seemed a bit strange and special to me. It was cool.

After breakfast, we got the bad news; Cat Ba Island was flooded from the rain, so we wouldn't be able to stay for the second night of our tour. The boat did dock there to pick something up - we could see how the water level had risen above the jetty - and then we headed back to Ha Long City. The tour guide took us to a restaurant for lunch (I swear I ate more on this tour than we had been eating for our whole trip) but then we got back on the bus to Hanoi. Kangaroo Cafe was kind enough to offer a partial refund, as well, and they were apologetic considering flooding wasn't exactly something they could control.

So, we got rained out of Ha Long Bay. At least we got to see some of it, and I don't know about B, but I had a great time on the boat. We had an extra day in Hanoi, as well, and our hotel didn't care that we were back a day earlier than we said we would be. Another trip to the Bay with mixed results, but hey, there was no mafia this time...

Ha Long Bay - one of the must-see places in Vietnam.

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