Majestic Halong Bay
Trip Start Sep 29, 2010
124Trip End Nov 30, 2011
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Where I stayed
Victory Star junk
Cat Ba Sunrise Resort
However our enthusiasm for train travel was immediately drained when we arrived at the station to be told that the train was running two hours late. Kerry instantly made the connection that it meant she wouldn’t be in Hanoi in time to watch the Royal Wedding. Unfortunately there was nothing that we could do about it though.
After being told that the train would be two hours late, it turned out to be almost three hours late by the time the train had pulled into Hue station, and we had climbed aboard. After locating our beds we found that we were sharing a cabin with some local Vietnamese, who seemingly didn’t understand or speak a word of English. As the train left the station we climbed into our hastily made beds for some much needed sleep. Our soft sleeper beds weren’t quite as soft as I had expected, but they were bearable – I can’t imagine what a hard sleeper must have been like though.
After a few hours of somewhat uncomfortable rest, not helped by the Vietnamese gentleman opening the curtain to let the daylight stream in, we sat up to watch the Vietnamese countryside pass by. The day passed by relatively quickly, and we both found the train a much more comfortable and scenic option, in comparison to almost all of the buses we have been on. We saw so much more of the beautiful Vietnamese countryside passing by outside our window than we ever would have seen taking a bus.
We eventually arrived into Hanoi at 6pm, two and a half hours behind schedule, and jumped straight in a taxi to our hotel. When we arrived at our hotel they weren’t exactly overjoyed to see us – they said that we had not reconfirmed our booking, and that they could 'upgrade’ us to another hotel in their chain. By this stage Kerry was desperate to watch anything that was left of the Royal Wedding. We insisted that our booking had been confirmed, and that we’d selected the hotel specifically in order to walk to our tour operator’s office in the morning. They finally relented, and we got our room. If we hadn’t been leaving on our tour to Halong Bay the next day then it might have been OK to ask us to change hotels, but unfortunately we’d booked that hotel for a reason.
We managed to catch around an hour and a half of the Royal Wedding on the TV and internet, so Kerry was a little happier. I don’t think I would have heard the end of it if she’d missed it entirely.
Saturday morning we had to get to our Halong Bay tour operator’s office by 8am – that meant having breakfast as soon as the kitchen opened at 7am. We arrived downstairs for breakfast to find an absolute shambles – there were only four tables, and they were all taken. Despite catering for breakfast every day, the staff seemed to have no idea how to cope with all of these people wanting breakfast at the same time. We were starting to get concerned about checking out and making it to our tour operator on time, when they finally put us on a table with another guest. Fortunately we were able to get breakfast, check out, and walk the 300m or so to the tour operator’s office in just enough time. After checking in for our tour, it was straight onto the bus headed for the UNESCO World Natural Heritage listed Halong Bay – this was one part of our trip that I was really looking forward to.
The traffic leaving Hanoi was insane – multiple times worse than Ho Chi Minh City - although it was a holiday weekend in Vietnam, with Saturday being the Anniversary of the Liberation of South Vietnam, and Sunday being Workers’ Day. The weather was grey and overcast, but as we arrived on the coast we could still make out the outlines of hundreds of limestone karsts rising out of the bay in the distance.
When we arrived at the port we were surprised to be told by our guide that we were going to be on a different boat than we had expected – apparently the boat we were booked on was being refurbished and we hadn’t been told about it. Disappointingly the boat that we ended up on was much, much bigger than the traditional junk we had booked to go on. Our guide didn’t really do himself any favours by failing to explain the situation quickly and clearly, and dismissing our concerns about the boat out of hand. And once on board, our guide proved himself to be completely inept - he didn’t even know what rooms we had booked. We weren’t particularly happy with the change of boat, or how it had been handled, but once the rooms were finally sorted, I have to concede that the boat was very nicely finished, and much better than I had been expecting from our original boat.
We enjoyed a nice lunch onboard as we cruised out into Bai Tu Long Bay, the much less famous bay just to the north of Halong Bay. After finishing our lunch, we moored in Bai Tu Long Bay, and were rowed around the Vung Vieng floating village, home to about 300 residents, in sampan-style rowboats for a view of village life in the Halong Bay region. Back onboard the boat we had some free time before attending a ‘cooking class’ – a 7-8 min whirlwind demonstration of cooking chicken stir-fry. Really advanced stuff! This was followed shortly after by our ‘gala dinner’, which Kerry and I duly attended in our best t-shirts and shorts.
Sunday morning we were up early, in time for breakfast at 7am, and to check out of our luxurious cabins by 7.45am. By 8am, we were on our way to the impressive Sung Sot Cave – a 10,000m2 grotto containing a 500m paved passage past fascinating stalactite and stalagmite formations. After spending nearly an hour inside the massive cave we transferred onto a smaller boat for our kayaking expedition, and to transfer us to Cat Ba Island.
After transferring to the smaller boat, and expecting that we were going to be spending the rest of the day kayaking, we got a bit of a shock when we were told that we would be taking the boat for an hour, and only stopping to kayak for an hour and a half. Needless to say neither Kerry nor I were very happy, given that we’d booked our tour on the basis of having a full day to explore this beautiful area by kayak, away from the boats, villages and all of the other tourists. It was unfortunate, but there was nothing that we could do about it. We had to live with it and make the best of it. Despite being a little upset at our unannounced change of plans, we managed to enjoy a nice kayak along one of the floating villages, before heading back towards the boat, and paddling into a natural lagoon.
We expressed our concerns to our guide, who didn’t really come across as being all that sympathetic or understanding, but we finally convinced him to allow us the opportunity to go kayaking again in the afternoon. If we weren’t going to be able to get our full day’s kayaking, we figured that we needed to get as much as we possibly could. After lunch and another short boat ride, we were allowed to take the kayaks for an hour to explore the towering limestone karsts by ourselves. As soon as we were out of sight of the boat we had complete peace and quiet. Suddenly the bay was transformed to an incredibly tranquil sanctuary where the only noise was the sound of our paddles entering and exiting the water. We had nearly an hour to ourselves, weaving back and forth, paddling around, and between, these magnificent and majestic islands, before we had to return to the boat. Ultimately this was what we had wanted, and had expected from our tour. It was such a shame that we had to fight so hard to get what we did, and that we couldn’t have had even more time to explore the quiet and beauty of this wonderous place.
Back on the boat, we headed for Cat Ba Island where we were staying the night at a beachfront resort. After all of the frustration vented about the lack of time available for kayaking, annoyingly we still managed to arrive at Cat Ba Island 15 mins ahead of our scheduled arrival. After checking in, we also quite annoyingly, had free time – which again, further begged the question about our guide’s time management. After all of the problems we’d had, I’d not been able to enjoy the day nearly as much as I hoped I would, so I simply opted to rest in our room while Kerry went for a swim in the resort’s pool.
Monday morning, we woke to yet another heavily overcast day. With our ferry back to the mainland not leaving until the early afternoon we had the morning to relax at the resort. After checking out, Kerry and I chose to walk along a clifftop walkway around to the neighbouring public beach, where we were unfortunately prevented from venturing any further by the collapsed state of the remaining walkways. Back at the resort we passed the remaining time beside the pool, reading and catching up on some more blogging.
When it came time to return back to the mainland from Cat Ba, we had to catch the ferry… apparently along with half of the rest of humanity. Our guide disappeared from the wharf briefly, only to reappear a few minutes later to hurry us onto the ferry. Joining the back of the non-existent queue to board the ferry was never going to work here. We observed the example of those around us, and determined that those who most desperately wanted to get back to the mainland simply employed whatever methods they needed to get to the front of the line, and get on the ferry. As far as the Vietnamese were concerned, if that meant shoving old ladies, and stepping on young children, then so be it.
For our group, this meant pushing through, past and over whatever Vietnamese wanted to stand in our way, along with all of our bags. This proved to be a lot easier for those in our group carrying only minimal luggage, but for Kerry and me it was a much bigger chore with all of our bags, and scores of Vietnamese all trying to cram onto the boat at once. By the time we finally left Cat Ba Island, every seat on the boat was taken, and fold away chairs were filling the aisles – it was an unbelievable scene, and one you would never have seen in any sort of developed country.
Halong Bay certainly has to be one of the real highlights of any trip to Vietnam. I just wish that we could have experienced it the way we had hoped. We know we can’t control the weather - which wasn’t as good as we’d hoped for - and we accept that, but when you don’t get what you think you paid for, you are certainly left feeling a little cheated. We’ve come away from this weekend with some good memories, some great photos, and can say that we’ve been to Halong Bay and experienced its wonder, but disappointingly we’re both left feeling that it should have been so much more.
Our next stop is the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi.