Day 22-24: Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

by - May 21, 2011

Day One: Sung Sot Cave, Cooking Lesson and Swimming

My hostel in Hanoi, the Rising Dragon, provided a well recommended tour to the world famous UNESCO heritage site at Ha Long Bay.  I felt a slight aversion towards doing an organized tour, but to travel independently would have cost about the same, taken far longer and included far more stress. Having had to arrange everything myself thus far on the trip, it was nice to let somebody else lead me around for a bit.  The tour was based around a cruise, with food and day trips provided.  I figured that I would take the three day tour and use it as a chance to really chill out a bit.  With a cost of 30 pounds a day for everything, it seemed better than sitting around in Hanoi.  Ha Long Bay is about 4 hours out of the capital and a hotel pick up came as part of the price.  We arrived at about 1 in the afternoon.

First views of Ha Long Bay
For those who don’t know, Ha Long Bay (translated as ‘Bay of the Descending Dragons’) is a group of thousands of limestone islands in the north of Vietnam. They are famous for being tremendously scenic and for the picturesque junks and fishing villages that are found in their waters.  It has also featured in a James Bond film and on the Top Gear special. To call it a Bay is slightly tenuous - it actually makes up 1500 square kilometres, which is far, far vaster than what I had in my head. There was no chance I was going to come to Vietnam and miss it. After sitting around on the jetty for a while, we got a small boat to our cruise ship.  By now we had all got talking, which seemed important considering that we would be spending the next 2-3 days together. I was sharing a cabin with a Californian guy called Matt, who was the spitting image of Jeremy out of Peep Show - which automatically made me get along with him.  Bizarrely.  As the only two solo travellers on the boat, we soon got to know each other.  By the time we had checked in and had a real banquet of a lunch, it was pushing on through the afternoon, so we all got onto the smaller boat and headed off for some nearby caves.

Sung Sot Cave
Sung Sot cave was found in the side of one of the islands.  If you have never been in a cave before, then it would have been amazing (the French named the cave 'Amazing Cave’ when they arrived). In all honesty, having seen caves in Majorca (which were impressive) I kind of felt I had seen them all, as nice as it was to go again.  It was worth going to though, if only for the elevated views over Ha Long Bay.  We arrived back at the boat for a brief cooking class - learning how to make spring rolls (which are actually pretty straightforward).  This only took an hour or so and this gave us time to go for a swim in the bay.  We used the third deck of the ship as a diving platform and had a fantastic time for an hour or so in the water which was still very warm - though also extremely salty.

Swimming in the bay
Dinner was in a similar vein to lunch - a huge variety of traditional Vietnamese seafood dishes that came out a few at a time, elongating the meal and encouraging further mingling.  Our evening entertainment came as a choice - either sitting around on the deck drinking, fishing for squid over the side of the boat, or watching a dubbed version of Rambo (where the same squeaky voiced Vietnamese man spoke the lines of everybody).  As it happened, I did a combination of all three, though the squid fishing enterprise was a bit of a flop, with nobody seeing anything worth catching, let alone catching it.  We had moored the boat close to a fishing village and we were able to see the slightly darker side of Ha Long Bay.  As night set in and the tides changed, the boat was surrounded by polluted water.  There is a real, clearly visible, problem with litter and pollution in the area and there doesn’t seem to be any obvious solution.  It isn’t necessarily the tourists who are at fault - though I am sure that some people are guilty.  It is more the fact that the villagers have been introduced to materials like plastic and polystyrene that don’t biodegrade, and haven’t changed their way of life to recycling.  That said, it was still a lovely night with the bay illuminated by a very low full moon.

Sunset over Ha Long Bay

Day Two: Canoeing and Monkey Island

Canoeing in Ha Long Bay
You may laugh at me, but I have developed a fear of monkeys on this trip.  Lonely Planet is partially to blame, as is my snake experience in Singapore.  You see, Lonely Planet is very quick to describe how 'cantankerous’  the monkeys are in region and I also know that a fair few of them are rabid.  While many people will actively search for monkeys and will laugh as the monkeys come looking for food - there are many stories of people having their sunglasses/hats stolen by the little creatures, and even for them to have their bags opened.  To me, this would be hellish - I see my chances of fighting off a monkey as slim, and I don’t want rabies.  I see a perfect logic here.  As a result, when it turned out that the day’s entertainment was a visit to 'Monkey Island’, I started preparing myself for the worst.

Canoeing in Ha Long Bay
The group split into two in the morning - with the 5 of us who were staying for 2 nights going off on one boat and the others who were only doing 1 night going back to the dock, via one last look around the Bay.  I was glad that I had chosen to do the extra night - whilst the smaller trip is advertised as '2 days/1 night’, it actually lasts for less than 24 hours.  I soon got to know my four fellow travellers, who were made up of two Australian couples - Grant and Maria, and Mel and John.  The boat was fairly big and we had plenty of space to walk around and lounge on the decks.  At one stage there were probably as many crew as passengers.  We were going a fair way south of our mooring - a journey that was set to last 2 hours.  On the way we went past the place where the James Bond movie was filmed - I was sure that it was 'The Man with the Golden Gun’, but apparently it was 'Tomorrow Never Dies’.  Maybe both were filmed there.

Another stop along the way allowed us to get off the boat and paddle around in canoes for an hour or so.  Our guide came with us and directed us around some of the more isolated regions, where when we stopped paddling we could only hear birds and water.  He also showed us how people make a living there.  The main 'crop’ is obviously fish, but besides your standard fishing, there is also a vast harvesting system for oysters and clams.  Much of the shallow water is taken up by buckets of sand, which are full of clams.  The oysters are grown on ropes and in nets futher out into the water.  Apparently it takes about 2 years for the crops to be ready.  He didn’t say how much money is in the industry, but I doubt it would be much.  I also don’t know if the industry is sustainable, which is ought to be considering that the region is a heritage site.

The top of monkey island
After finishing with the canoeing we headed off to the dreaded Monkey Island, which by now had reached 'Planet of the Apes’ proportions in my mind.  We got off the boat onto a beach which had a few buildings and a lot of locals swimming.  The boat had other people to collect, so we were truely stranded.  I picked up a stick to fend off the first wave of monkeys, which I was sure was waiting in ambush.  The island was very small and consisted of two limestone peaks.  We climbed up one, though there was no track - it was just a sheer climb up a rough (and sharp) limestone cliff.  Frequent vistitors to my blog will know that one of my greatest travelling flaws is the choice of inappropriate footwear (perhaps only second to my tendency to drop my passport in terms of flaws).  You would have thought that walking up a German alp in suede shoes would have made me learn, but my footwear of choice for my afternoon of climbing was a 5 year old pair of deck shoes, which have next to no sole.  It was essentially a bare foot climb and it was a relief that it didn’t take us long to get to the top.  Amusingly, after all the fuss (and our guide winding me up), we only saw two monkeys and these were on the opposite peak to the one we climbed.  The others might have thought this was a slight let down, but I was able to breathe a sigh of relief.  We swam for a bit before starting the 2 hour journey back to meet our boat.

View from the top of Monkey Island
There was a whole new load of passengers on the boat when we got back, who had replaced the people who were only doing 1 night.  By now the five of us who had spent the day together were a bit of a clique, so we had dinner together and didn’t speak overly to the other passengers.  Which wasn’t the end of the world really.  The evening ran in roughly the same way to the night before, but with the squid fishermen giving up a fair bit earlier.  The movie on show was another Rambo and also Avatar, but watching them in Vietnamese is literally impossible.  So we sat around talking, with a bit of excitement provided by a rat scurrying across the deck.  Don’t let that spoil your perception of what was a great boat and great service - boats have rats, its no big deal.  It is worth saying now that 'A-Class cruises’ is a really fantastic company to go with if you are visiting Ha Long Bay.  The reason that I had chosen it was as a result of a recommendation from some friends in Saigon and I see no reason to not keep the positive ratings flowing.

Day Three: Fishing village and return to Hanoi

Fishing village in Ha Long Bay
The last morning was a little bit more relaxed.  We checked out of our rooms, had a nice long breakfast and then spent the morning having a leisurely paddle around a fishing village on a bamboo raft.  The people who had joined our boat the night before spent the morning at the caves, so it was just me, Grant, Maria, John and Mel on the boat, which was powered most of the way around by a kid who can’t have been much older than 5 or 6.  It wasn’t the most exciting part of the trip - but it was a nice way to round it all off.  We got back to the boat for lunch and then headed back to dry land.  The cruise had been a fantastic experience - I met some great people, got to see some amazing sights and was able to relax and eat great food.  Anybody with enough time to spend two nights in the Bay should definitely consider it - provided that the tour company has a busy enough itinerary planned.

We arrived back in Hanoi at about half 4.  Amazingly I bumped into Brian, the American skiing guy on the way home.  He had been in Ha Long Bay at the same time as me and it was the third time I had bumped into him during the time I have been in Vietnam.  It wouldn’t surprise me if I see him again before I leave.  I said my farewells to my Aussie friends on the way, though Maria and Grant are going to be in Chiang Mai at the same time as me, so I will probably see them again.  I have to admit that I sat around watching the Silence of the Lambs and The Men Who Stare at Goats for the rest of the evening (neither of which are actually about livestock).  I did however walk around the lake one last time as it is Ho Chi Minh’s birthday weekend and there was a lot going on.  Tomorrow is my last half day in Vietnam before I head off to Laos. 

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