After our sojourn in Sapa we had another stop-gap day in Hanoi before heading off to Ha Long Bay, one of the final must-do episodes of our trip.
Ha Long bay is well known as an area of stunning geography where thousands of limestone karst islands jut imposingly out of the sea to give one of the truly magnificent sites of natural wonder the world has. With it’s Unesco world heritage designation it is also well and truly on the tourist map and as such is one of the most visited and busiest places to see in Vietnam. We had read that the best way to enjoy the bay was to stay on a boat rather than do day trips from Halong City which apparently is quite a seedy and exploitative tourist trap. Herein lay our dilemma as we had also heard some horror stories from the Aussies we met in Sapa about unscrupulous tour operators massively overcharging, and hundreds of tourist boats going round in a well worn trail, queuing up to see caves and bays, with party boats moored up together pumping out loud music and drunken antics long into the night. Maybe we’re getting old but this was not the experience we were looking for….
Fortunately, I’d read about Bai Tu Long bay which is the lesser known area north of Ha Long Bay but still has the same stunning scenery. After some quick research we found out that there was only one company that had a license to operate in the bay and if true the trip promised to be far more the gentile experience we were after. We booked up and kept our fingers crossed – one thing our travels has taught us is to not bank on anything being as its supposed to be until you actually see it in front of you!
The next morning, after another day of manic motorbike dodging on the Hanoi streets and a slightly bizaar experience at the Water Puppet theatre, we were picked up from our hotel to be transported to Halong in a smart new minibus – things were looking promising. Three hours later we arrived in Halong City at Indochina Junks’ dockside reception. Minutes later we were slipping from the dock, in a tender launch with 13 other guests eager to board our new home. When we arrived aboard I was very impressed, this was no piece of floating junk but an elegant wooden vessel with a hint of old world nostalgia that made me think of Agatha Christie’s depiction of a Victorian Nile cruiser. Our cabin was a charming wood paneled room complete with double bed and generous en suite bathroom with rain shower. We had lucked in.
As we gently set sail out of the bay, the mayhem of Hanoi was left behind and we grabbed a beer and headed up top to the sun deck to lounge and meet our fellow cruisers. Before long we were called down for lunch in the dining room – something which turned out to a veritable 5 course feast of Vietnamese delicacies, each tantalizing our taste buds. By the time we had finished we were well and truly out in the bay and the impressive karst islands were slipping by like slow-motion scenery being pulled across a page. The peace and serenity of this seascape was truly mesmerizing and we really began to appreciate the marvel of these natural formations, actually formed by a massive limestone plateau that has been sinking, eroding and flooded over millennia to leave us with this maze-like archipelago.
Our first stop was at a sandy beach, where we could enjoy a kayak around the islands and visit a cave once inhabited by the local fishermen for generations, it’s caverns provided a cool shelter in the summer and a warm enclosure in the winter and monsoons. We lounged and explored for a few hours until the sun was setting before returning to our luxurious Junk and setting sail for our overnight stop. As the light faded we enjoyed sundowners on the deck and before long the karsts around us became forboding silhouetted masses like giant castellations looming over us both imposing and protecting as we weaved our way silently through.
Dinner was another culinary extravaganza, this time seven courses of edible delectableness, with each of the main courses introduced with an amazing food sculpture prepared by different crew members, one taking nearly 5 hours to make! At the end of the meal our on-board representative introduced us to the crew and the captain before a little surprise was presented to Jo and I in the form of an elaborate cake, baked in honor of our Honeymoon (I would like to take credit for sneakily arranging this behind Jo’s back but this was a spontaneous effort from the crew after they had learned we were on our honeymoon). It was a lovely gesture, and typical of the genuine effort the crew and the operator made to make the trip special for everyone on board.
The next day, we were summoned to breakfast for 8am as we effortlessly got underway for our morning excursion – a visit to a floating fishing village and pearl farm. When we arrived, we were ferried to a docking platform before being allocated a local to row us through the floating village, itself situated in a sheltered and almost fully enclosed karst bay. We were told that there were nearly 200 people living in this community and that many of them had never been to the mainland and have grown up living a fisherman’s life, trading their catches for whatever else they needed. It was an intriguing take on an idyllic subsistence lifestyle but one that I’m sure was underpinned by hardship. After a brief stop to see the local floating school, and an obligatory attempt to be extorted by the tourist gift shop, we rejoined our fishing dinghy and were rowed on through the bay. Being me of course I insisted on taking a turn on the oars to give our local lady a rest, so I donned her traditional bamboo conical hat and rowed us on for a bit. After a half-hearted attempt to engage the other rowers into a race, and before I was utterly humiliated by being overtaken by what must have been the Vietnamese teenage Olympic rowing champion in the making, our lady wished to regain the helm and guide us back to the landing platform. She probably just wanted to save face with her peers rather than watch me snake us haphazardly towards the dock like some drunken sailor.
After a quick but interesting look at the pearl farm, I managed to entice Jo away before she had the chance to add pearls to her list of jewelry purchased on our travels. Sadly, this was our last stop before making our way slowly and elegantly back to the port in Halong city. And as we sailed back, we reflected that this had been one of the highlights of our trip, and exactly what we had wanted from the Ha Long Bay experience – we’d avoided the crowds and enjoyed 2 days of tranquil sailing in one of the most beautiful and remarkable seascapes on the planet. Magic!