There were 12 of us on the boat and we met our travelling companions early on Tuesday morning: three Korean girls, two Aussie girls, two British women, a Kiwi, a Canadian and a Dutch guy. It took about three hours to travel to Ha Long City by bus; we had lunch there and then boarded our boat which was much larger than we were expecting. Most of the vessels in the bay are built along similar lines - they're wooden pleasure cruisers, some of them with beautiful coloured sails like a Chinese junk (it turns out that on all but one of the boats, these sails are entirely decorative and perform no function at all, but they do look very nice!). The six cabins were all on the lower deck and the upper deck is for socialising - it had windows on both sides that open up, although it was quite chilly until the wind dropped and so we did most of our sightseeing through the glass or at times huddled on the observation deck at the back.
We motored along out of the harbour and into the bay and the crowds started to thin out. We passed some floating villages - the little houses were built on floats and there was even a school. We wondered what happened when the playtime bell rang and the kids legged it outside - presumably the teachers are trained lifeguards... The people living here make their money from farming shrimps and oysters for pearls, but they're also cottoned on to the potential of the tourist dollar and we were regularly visited by hawkers who would pull up along side us and offer everything from chocolate biscuits to tropical fruit to loo roll. Very enterprising and much more fun than pushing a trolley around Sainsbury's.
The first place we visited on the first day of our cruise was one of the many caves that are hidden among the 3,000+ islands of Ha Long Bay. The "Surprising Cave" was so named by a French explorer who discovered it in 1901 (our guide made the point that the locals knew it was there already, but weren't that surprised by it!). There are three chambers of increasing size which all contain impressive stalagmites and stalactites. The final cavern is huge. The authorities have highlighted particularly interesting formations - perhaps most surprisingly the first one you see is floodlit in pink and is in the shape of an enormous phallus - why they chose that one is a mystery, but it was more interesting than the "Half Eaten Chicken Foot" we were treated to in the Snowy Jade Cave in Sichuan.
By the time we left the cave it was late afternoon, but although the sun was low in the sky it had warmed up a little bit. We moored off a small beach on another island and while the majority of our fellow passengers climbed the hill to get a nice view of the bay, we took the plunge and went for a dip. It was bloody freezing - a bit reminiscent of Llandudno on school trips - but we felt quite heroic and treated ourselves to a beer when we were back on board. Apparently if you go night swimming you're rewarded by the sight of phosphorescence, but once the sun disappeared, so did our desire to get wet.
The sunset was beautiful and once we'd found a safe mooring, we were served a wonderful dinner of fresh seafood. In the morning we motored to a small island (bizarrely named after a Russian cosmonaut) and climbed the hill for some breathtaking views - the limestone islands stretch as far as the eye can see. It really was a lovely couple of days and we were so lucky with the weather, but time flew and before we knew it, it was time to return to the mainland and Hanoi for our adventurous overnight bus journey to Vientiane, the capital of Laos.
More than anywhere else we've been on this trip, we've felt as if there's been a kind of prescribed tourist itinerary in Vietnam and try as we might to escape it seems to exist for a reason. Ha Long Bay is pretty high on most visitors' routes and we were no exception, we'd missed out on a cruise down the Li River in China where you can see similar karst limestone formations, so we were set on seeing these strange islands in the bay here. We decided to book a two day tour from Hanoi where we'd travel to the coast, sail (or actually motor) around the bay for half a day, sleep on board and then return to the city the following afternoon.