Our time in Hanoi was split into two parts – that which we spent into the city, which I’ve detailed in Chapter 4 Parts 1 & 2, and that which we spent on a boat around Halong Bay. But Halong is actually 4 hours drive down the coast and our experience of it so vastly different to that in the city, that I shall give this a chapter in its own right. Chapter 5 – Halong Bay.
In Halong Bay I had the same difficulty I had in Venice, in trying to capture the scene in a lens. It’s impossible. The shape of the island mountains on the skyline is mystical and other worldly. It perfectly frames the spirituality of the people. The Vietnamese believe in four sacred creatures – the Unicorn, the Dragon, the Phoenix and the Turtle. Odd that only the latter is an existing, real creature, which apparently represents ‘long life’. Whilst in Halong, our tour guide (who asked us to call him “Springy”, a nickname for Suan, which means “Spring”) told us the story of how it became named Halong Bay, or “descending dragon”. According to local legend, when Vietnam had just started to develop into a country, they had to fight against invaders. To assist the Vietnamese in defending their country, the gods sent a family of dragons as protectors. This family of dragons began spitting out jewels and jade. These jewels turned into the islands and islets dotting the bay, linking together to form a great wall against the invaders. Under magics, numerous rock mountains abruptly appeared on the sea, ahead of invaders’ ships; the forward ships struck the rocks and each other. After winning the battle, the dragons were interested in peaceful sightseeing of the Earth, and then decided to live in this bay. The place where the mother dragon descended was named Hạ Long.
This is about as much justice to the description as I feel I can do and I’m not sure if my photographs will do much better either. But I realised that whilst I’ve been chattering away about mine and our feelings of our experience it might be prudent to invite my travelling (and life) partner to share his thoughts. Happily stuck in his book in right now I don’t want to interrupt him too much by asking him to actually write something, so I decided to interview him instead. So enjoy a break from my ramblings and here is what James thought about Halong Bay…
JCAC = James
JJC: How did you find the journey to Halong Bay?
JCAC: In a word – BUMPY. It was the most uncomfortable drive I’ve ever had. Yet the discomfort was somewhat displaced by the thought of where we were headed and what we were leaving behind. The madness and hustle and bustle of the city left behind us, by the time we got out of the traffic, and heading for what we believed to be the serene calm of one of the most beautiful places in the world.
JCAC: Chipper! Is the word I would use! But only when he was giving his little speeches. He was an odd kind of guy and obviously reading from a script. Because when he stood up to talk to the group he was lively, friendly and jokey, but if you tried to talk to him alone he was completely shut off, almost disinterested.
JJC: What did you think of the boat?
JCAC: Almost exactly what I expected but probably only because I looked at the pictures! The boats are made in the style of traditional ‘junk boats’, but they aren’t actual junk boats themselves. I don’t know what an actual junk boat would have been but I doubt anything like that. For a Boat it was very comfortable. It moved at a nice pace and kept level so there was very little rocking and waving. The bedroom was surprisingly comfortable, the bed itself was comfortable and bathroom well fitted and designed. The air con worked a treat, which was a welcome relief for me! All in all the boat was smaller than I expected, but I think it was because we were upgraded. It seems to me the more luxury boats are smaller, therefore less people and more attentive service, which I was grateful for. Anyway, all in all a little tired, well worn, well used, but comfortable.
JCAC: Well there’s a question! People from any which walk of life really. So there was an older Australian couple, two Australian ladies who had been friends for years but who live opposite sides of the country. A French family with two biological sons and who I can only guess was an adopted daughter (judging from her vastly different skin tone), either that or a love child!
JCAC: Then possibly the weirdest couple I’ve ever met. A Vietnamese lady and her Russian boyfriend, who was absolutely massive, muscular on top, but with the scrawniest legs you’ve ever seen! And who didn’t speak a word, barely even to her, unless he was going for a cigarette…
JJC: …Or wanted a beer. I think that was only word I heard him say, “beer”.
JCAC: Whether that was because he can’t speak English, but then if he can’t, will he really know Vietnamese? So how they communicate I haven’t got a clue.
Just the strangest mix of people. Some absolutely lovely. So the French family, when I was doing night squid fishing, came down and asked if we’d caught anything and whether we were having much luck. They seemed really excited and I believe they caught something later on! Then the Australian couple, again a bit of an odd combination, but lovely. He was 66 and she was in her late 40’s I would guess. He could talk for Australia.
JJC: And Australia is BIG!
JJC: What activities did we do on the first day?
JCAC: So, we ate A LOT. I wouldn’t normally call that an activity, but the amount of food they brought out…! More on that later…
But first things first, we stopped for some kayaking. We went round a few coves and tunnels under the rocks, which was a very pleasant experience. But the water wasn’t particularly nice because there was a lot of boats around. Navigating was a bit difficult at times. It was interesting watching how people behaved. The Vietnamese/Russian couple just shot off on their own, despite specific instructions given to follow our guide to abide with health and safety regulations. We found out later she can’t swim yet the two went shooting off on their own, which I found childish. The Australian ladies struggled to keep up a bit. The French family were a bit wayward with their steering, but then I wasn’t much better…
JJC: …I thought you did very well. And we were the BEST team!
JCAC: We WERE the best team. The views were stunning and we went into a quiet little cove and then we got to see some monkeys! These were weird looking. They were mountainous monkeys, used to living on rocks and for that reason evolution has only given them a short tall, so they looked like someone has lopped off half their tail. Apparently they swim from island to island, which I would love to see!
Then it was back to boat with the option to swim. I had hoped we would be going to a different cove away from other boats, but nope it was just jump straight in. Which we did! We were the first in! The water wasn’t exactly pleasant. It was not cold, which was a nice surprise. But I think possibly the water isn’t circulated through and back into the ocean. It didn’t look that bad at first but then you see the surface of the water with oil and rubbish. But it was fun, then time for a shower before my skin peeled off!
Then it was time for coffee and fruit, dinner, then night squid fishing…which was an experience…definitely. I like fishing, but you know what, if you don’t get any reward after two hours, it gets dull. With squid fishing they switch a light on to try and apparently entice the squid…it got dull after a while. But sitting you could hear the party cruises and I sat there thinking to myself, thank God I’m not on one of those!
JJC: What activities did we do on the second day?
JCAC: Not quite as much as it was a shorter day. Up bright and early then off to ‘The Cave of Surprises’! Although we were told it was The Cave of Surprises OR The Amazing Cave. The second is more apt, I would say, it was a very impressive cave however not entirely surprising. It was a cave, it had stalagmites and stalactites….and that was about it. So no real surprise there! We got to the ticket office on a little jetty and it was absolutely packed. Our tour was set to be an hour but that was mostly queuing. It no way takes an hour to get around. Our tour guide said its busy like this all day, obviously to put us at ease about queuing, however when we left, looking back at the jetty there was no one there whatsoever. So all the tours obviously go bright and early in order to get everyone back to the harbour in time, then turn the boat around, pick up more people and do it all over again. It is a tourist trap, inevitably, but it doesn’t bother me. Vietnam isn’t a wealthy nation and they do need to take whatever revenue they can from tourists.
JJC: How did you find the food?
JCAC: The food itself – plentiful, is the politest way of putting ‘over-facing’. But delicious. Made with all fresh ingredients…we were told they pick up all the ingredients when they get back to the harbour so it’s very fresh.
JJC: We had four meals in 24 hours all of which was…
JCAC: …A lot of food! It just kept coming!
We realised on the first day that there weren’t enough tables for everyone to have their own, so figured we had to sit with one another. They’d planned the meals per table rather than per person. They would bring plates of food to share between the table, tell you what it is, then you’d share it. Then they’d bring another…and another…
JJC: …More often than not they brought rice as the last dish, which made no sense, why bring out the carbs when you’re already stuffed!
JCAC: No matter who we were sat with to be honest it’s a horrible premise to be made to sit and eat with strangers. From a service point of view I understand it, they don’t have that many staff, probably not much crockery, it’s the simplest way to serve a room full of people. The second theory could be to make people talk to each other. But quite frankly we went on this cruise to have time alone. Meal times were the least pleasant part. Over facing for one, but I don’t like sitting with people I don’t know to have a meal…and then the Vietnamese/Russian couple were funny about their food, which was uncomfortable. He ate surprisingly little and she pushed hers around on her plate. Strangest meal set up I’ve ever had.
We also had a ‘cooking class’, OR make your own lunch! The chef had prepared the filling for us to make our own spring rolls. It got everyone involved but it was very much “what else can we give them to do to fill up this day”. “Here’s some rice papers and a bowl of filling, here’s how to roll them, ok now we’ll cook them for you.” It was a bit of entertainment and did fill the gap, and we are going to make our own at home…but I’m pretty sure I could have done it without the ‘cookery class’.
JCAC: The story about the monkey brains. It used to be a delicacy and people came to Vietnam for it but it’s now been banned. Essentially they’d cut a hole in the middle of the table and they would fix a live monkey to the underside with the head poking through the hole. The delicacy was to eat the brains while the monkey was still alive. So they would literally cut the top of the head off and you would sit and scoop out its brains. I can’t think of anything more disgusting. Because monkeys are revered and an old belief was that if you ate the brains of any animal you would gain its strength, power or knowledge or something along those lines. Completely disgusting!
JJC: What was your least favourite thing about this trip?
JCAC: Mealtimes. Or the bus journey.
JJC: How would you compare this experience with Hanoi?
JCAC: It’s difficult to compare the two. They were completely different. Hanoi itself was a fantastic experience and I’m glad we went back for a second night. In spite of how challenging and stressful it was, it was also amazing. The hustle and bustle, speed, pace and the people around. Both were amazing and I’m really glad we did both. If you asked me to choose which I prefer I’d probably struggle. I loved Halong bay, the views were amazing and it wasn’t tainted by the mealtimes. I’d much rather have been taken away from the other boats and just given a kayak and just dotted around on your own, but nonetheless it was still amazing and as well worth the experience.
JJC: What was your favourite thing about this trip?
JCAC: Quite simply the views. All the way through. As soon as we left the harbour you saw the islands the rock formations appearing in front of you. It was just amazing. Impressive from start to finish.