May 30, 2008
|The train from hell pulled into Hanoi at approximately 9:00pm – late, of course. We hadn’t booked our hotel room for the night, and still had to meet up with Reese and Jess to finalize the details for our Halong bay tour.
Reese and Jess had gone straight to Hanoi from Hoi An, and we had already agreed that we would take the Halong Bay trip together. We had heard that one’s enjoyment of the trip, to a large degree, depends on the fellow shipmates, so we wanted to make sure that we would take the trip together. Jess had done all the legwork and reserved two double cabins on the Jewel of The Bay, a junk-style boat, for a two-day, one-night cruise around Halong Bay. The cruise includes all meals, transportation back and forth from Hanoi, entrance to all the sights, and the use of a kayak for a couple of hours. At $120 US per person, it was outside of our budget, but we had heard horror stories about the quality of the cheaper tours (rats in the cabins, overflowing toilets and the like) so we felt that it was important to ensure a quality tour, especially after the horrific train journey. We also used the remainder of our anniversary present from Rebecca’s parents towards the trip, which eased the cost impact on our budget.
We were greeted at the Hanoi train station by more hotel runners, and despite our earlier plans, decided to look at the hotels they were plugging. We should have known how it would turn out when the runners were too incompetent to organize transportation from the train station to the hotel. Runners usually go up to backpackers with photos of the hotels they are plugging, quote a certain price, and provide free transportation to the hotel. Sometimes this proves to be a valuable service, and in exchange the runners receive a commission from the hotel. However, the ones in Hanoi were particularly dishonest and would quote false prices and show pictures unrepresentative of the quality of the hotel rooms. Upon arriving at the hotel, we would be led up the 6 or 7 stories to the last possible room at the top, hauling our bags with us, to look at a room of considerable lower quality that the one in the runner’s picture, and be quoted a price a couple of dollars higher. The hope is that by this time we are too tired to object and will just take the room at the price quoted. If, after trying to barter a deal, we finally refuse the room, there are half a dozen other runners outside waiting to take us to another hotel where we will repeat the whole process. After an hour of cruising around Hanoi’s old quarter, helmetless on the back of a moped with our 50 pound bags still strapped to our shoulders, and being shown a bunch of crappy hostels from various dishonest runners, we finally just settled for a bug-infested, dingy, dark, craphole of a room, with no A/C, 5 floors up a narrow staircase for $8.00 a night.
By this time it was already 10:00pm and we still had to meet up with Jess and Reese, who were waiting for us to arrive so we could make plans for the trip to Halong bay. We had an awful time finding their hotel in the old quarter, just to cap off what had been the worst day of our trip considering the train ride from Hue.
We left at 8:00 am the next morning Halong, and took at small bus with three other couples and one creepy Austrian man (Rebecca told me that I had to take out the joke about kidnap victims – it’s too soon apparently). Including the obligatory stop at a restaurant/souvenir factory we arrived in Halong city after a three hour drive.
We then took a small boat out to our junk boat moored in the harbor. It turned out that we were not on the Jewel of the Bay after all, but had been pawned off on another company and would board another boat. There’s no doubt that had Rebecca and I been travelling alone, we would have been demoted, ending up on a floating version of the craphole where we had spent the previous night, but with the Turner’s our luck changed and the new boat was actually nicer than the one we had originally booked. In all honesty, the cozy double bunk room was the nicest room we’ve stayed in thus far, and the bathrooms were definitely the nicest we’ve seen. The boat was a two storey wooden junk boat. The lower storey had 4 double rooms on each side, all with ensuite marble bathrooms, A/C and fridges. The second storey had a small lounging area on a front outside deck, a small lounging area inside, a dining room and kitchen in the back. Behind the dining room was a special suite that could be had for an additional $40 US/night, but there were no takers in our group. The top of the boat had a nice lounging area with deck and lounge chairs. Besides our tour guide, there were probably 4 or 5 other staff members in charge of piloting the boat, cooking and serving the meals, and cleaning the rooms and boat.
We set out from Halong City at about noon on the 29th, joining an armada of junk boats all heading off for their respective cruise destinations. We were served a fresh seafood lunch, drank beers, and watched as the boat approached the limestone cliffs and mountains arising out of the emerald sea. The scenery was incredible (Rebecca says breathtaking) and definitely tops our list of natural wonders.
Halong Bay is in the Gulf of Tonkin, and there are over 3,000 islands in a 1,500 square kilometer area. The bay has been declared a UNESCO World The area is comparable to Krabi, Thailand but on a greater and more impressive scale. The boat navigated around the uninhabited islands, providing great views and passing little floating fishing villages. Our first stop was on a larger island with the huge Hang Sung Sot cave complex held within the limestone mountain. The cave is actually a national park. We explored the cool, damp cave with our guide and fellow passengers. The cave contained three huge chambers containing many stalactites and stalagmites illuminated by different coloured lights.
We then landed at Dao Titop island with a beautiful beach and over 400 stairs leading to the top of the island where there are incredible views of the surrounding area. We enjoyed a quick swim before taking off in our kayaks. Jess, Reese, Rebecca and I were the only kayakers in the group. The original plan was the cross the large channel between two groups of islands, but the distance seemed too great, and the sun too hot, so we caught a ride a little closer and set off from there. We were able to kayak through a cave leading into a lagoon surrounded on all sides by tall, rising cliffs. It was one of the highlights of the cruise.
We then enjoyed a swim around the boat, a refreshing shower in our luxurious cabin and a few drinks before dinner. Again, dinner consisted mostly of seafood, including a fresh crab for each passenger (except vegetarian Rebecca and anti-seafood Jess). The night was ours to do as we pleased and we had smuggled additional beverages on board for just such an occasion. We ended the night several hours later only after deciding that taking the life boat out for an unsupervised spin probably wasn’t the best idea.
The next we were served a continental breakfast, and some of our group went off to explore another cave, while the four of us who ended the night stayed to swim around the boat and enjoy the scenery. We were then served another decent lunch before making the cruise back to Halong Bay to our waiting mini-bus.
The cruise was definitely one of the highlights of our trip. We have never seen natural scenery comparable to Halong Bay - it is definitely a beautiful natural sight. Although we couldn’t afford a longer cruise, we felt that the two-day, one-night just wasn’t enough time. This is something that we would definitely recommend for anyone, although we would warn not to scrimp on the cost. Quality does matter; and we were glad not to be passengers on some of the other boats in the harbour.
Unfortunately, we’ve had virus problems with our computer, and with our cameras and memory cards as well. The bad news is that we lost all but a couple of our least favorite Halong Bay pictures. Guess you’ll just have to see it for yourselves!!