The Beauty of Halong Bay
POST BY JEREMY
Halong Bay is a popular tourist attraction about three hours outside of Hanoi. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and between the green waters and massive limestone pillars appearing right out of the sea, it was one of the most beautiful places we have visited so far. We were very lucky to have seen any of it as our trip nearly didn't happen. The planning was in the works for a while. Almost all of our travel buddies who had been to Vietnam said a trip to Halong Bay was worth doing and if you were going to do it, then do it right. Essentially this means, don't let this be one of the activities you decide to penny pinch on.
We had been recommended Vega Travel by a friend and after finding further good reviews on TripAdvisor we put down a deposit and planned for a three day, two-night journey. The trip would begin with getting picked up in Hanoi, before proceeding to a boat for one night and exploring Halong Bay and various activities before then going to Cat Ba Island for one night and finally back to Hanoi. Now I have no doubt you are all asking, since I’m sure you’re all avid readers of this famous blog… “Has the heat affected your brains and memory, why the hell are you getting back on a boat, after the Whitsunday's experience?!?” Simple answer to all of you…we may not be the brightest, but we are up for an adventure!
We were picked up from our hotel and soon we were off via our mini bus to Halong Bay. There were about fifteen other passengers, and our leader for the next couple of days, Bobby. He was a very personable guide, giving us stories about Vietnam, quirky traditions that go on in the countryside and providing an itinerary for what was ahead. He got a big kick in telling us how in the Sapa region, the groom’s family has to provide up to ten buffalo to the wife’s family if the girl is around nineteen, but the number of buffalo goes down the older she gets. He said, “I have no money, so I’m waiting for a wife that will be around two buffalo.” I laughed, Steph probably gave one her patented, funny/not funny smirks.
Upon arriving to Halong Bay, the weather took a turn for the worst and the skies opened. Everyone moved under cover and waited for the rains to pass. So far in Vietnam, whenever we had encountered rain, it might rain for fifteen minutes and then push through. Well an hour passed, then another hour and eventually people started getting a bit hungry and restless. Soon we heard a different group's leader pass along the bad news that their tour was unfortunately canceled because the Vietnamese coast guard was not going to allow any commercial tours to depart for the rest of the day due to the storm. We held out hope that maybe this was only going to apply to those taking day trips but shortly after, Bobby came over to tell our group that we wouldn't be boarding our boat and thus our place to stay either.
After a three hour ride from Hanoi, we knew we definitely didn't want to go back if getting on a tour the next day was a possibility. Bobby started running over the options and explained that if we stayed the night in Halong City, we would get our money back for one of the days and give it a go again the next morning. This would mean we would still get a night on the boat but unfortunately miss Cat Ba Island. This was disappointing to miss out on, but really Halong Bay was the true reason we were there anyways. Most of the others on the tour agreed except for one grouping that started throwing a fit. A group of four, from Texas and led by their leader, Sunshine. Sunshine was probably a nice enough person and I’m sure she is just a lovely person back home. But on this day, she was all that was stereotypical about the “I get what I want, and I want it now,” American entitled persona. In a Facebook post that day, I equated her looks and persona to the Chris Farley character in the Gap Girls sketch on SNL back in the day. (Google if necessary and see you back in here in 5 min); Bobby kept giving her different options that even covered getting a ride back to Hanoi and a full refund but instead she wanted answers as to why the company didn't warn her that the trip might be cancelled and insisted on speaking to a manager. This nut job was acting like weather was a foreseeable problem the company should have sent her a memo warning her rain was a possibility (check your weather app lady!).
After what must have been thirty minutes of back and forth, God bless the patience of Bobby, her group finally decided they wanted to go back to Hanoi but insisted on a meal, immediately, paid for by Vega Travel. There were two different travelers who were also going to ride the same bus back with Sunshine and her merry group of pricks, and they needed to be back to catch a night train. When Bobby, told Sunshine he’d get her food but it had to be to go, so the others wouldn't miss her train, her response was, “Not my problem.” This was about the point where the rest of the group, the ones probably far more patient than I, lost all possibly sympathy for the Texan and her friends. It was pretty embarrassing to witness, but hopefully our ability to recognize this gross behavior means that we’ve learned a thing or two during traveling about just going with the flow.
While that show was going on, Steph was able to find a cheap place in Halong City for us to stay the night. We were brought into the city and found our hotel, a very basic place where the owner definitely didn't speak a lick of English but luckily did know how to check his Agoda reservations. By this point it was late afternoon and we headed into town to find some grub. There isn't too much going on in Halong City, but we found a local spot that had beers on tap and local food. We ended up going back for dinner, round two if you will, knowing it offered a bunch of options and good prices.
The next morning, we headed into town to grab a coffee before meeting up with the rest of the group. On our way, heading towards us is Bobby, coming to find us at our hotel so we can meet the rest of the group. Great guy, that Bobby! As we had a little extra time, we had a coffee and we got him to open up a bit about the group from the day before. It was funny for us to see him let his guard down a bit and roll his eyes when we asked for his feelings on Sunshine. From there we met up with the rest of the group at a hotel and headed back towards the bay with our fingers crossed for better luck. Besides the Texan group leaving, a different couple did a day trip, and then a German couple joined our group. So all in all it was us, a young backpacker girl from England, a couple from Rotterdam Holland that were traveling for about a month, a German couple where the boyfriend was meeting his girlfriend who had been traveling for some time, and lastly a family of four from London, where the parents were meeting up with their daughter and her boyfriend, who had been backpacking for almost a year. In the end we couldn't have asked for a friendlier group of people.
“We are a go,” said Bobby and soon thereafter we were boarding the boat. Nothing was a prettier sight to our eyes than being shown our room and seeing a nice size bed, a bathroom all to ourselves, a window, A/C and everything! To us this was a luxury yacht compared to our Australian sailboat. We then had lunch which ended up being one of the many feasts we’d enjoy on the boat. Every meal was pretty damn delicious and came with multiple courses. After eating we put our swimsuits on and headed out for a tour of Surprising Cave and some kayaking. Surprising Cave was a massive cave that was about as different a cave as one could find compared to the cramped quarters of the one near Kep in Cambodia. This was really opened up and highlighted by huge craters and stalactites along with one very phallic formation which is why they call the cave, Surprising Cave. The locals get such a kick of this formation they even have a red light shining on the large and in charge rock as to make sure it is not missed.
After our cave tour, we boarded our two person kayaks and explored the bay. The bay has this amazing green color, there were monkeys climbing all around the karst’s that spring out of the water, and it was a really enjoyable afternoon. We went back to the boat from some jumping off the deck into the water and some swimming before another feast.
Steph and I ended drinking beers, staying up late with the solo backpacker from England and the couple from Holland. Even with all the beautiful beaches, skylines and temples, I think just chatting with other travelers will be things that stick with me the most once home. Talking about our concerns for the future, politics and more it was really interesting and reassuring to hear that no matter where people may live or how they were raised, the majority of us are looking for the same things in life.
We woke up early the next morning in order to check out a Pearl farm. It was cool to see the process of them taking the oyster, inserting a type of tiny plastic ball, and then viewing the finished product that happens months later. No buying of pearls though at their shop, not on this traveler’s budget. From there we hiked up a path that led to a breathtaking view of Halong Bay. This led to some amazing pictures and was just one more reason we were so glad we stuck around Halong City two days earlier. A final boarding of the boat, a quick shower, and one more feast as we headed back to shore. We were very thankful the rain held off enough for us to see Halong Bay, our final stop in Vietnam. It was a beautiful spot and a perfect cap to our time in this country. The lanterns of Hoi An, the crazy motorbikes everywhere, the tasty food, there wasn’t much not to like about Vietnam. We definitely recommend visiting and can only hope we are able to make it back one day.