I’d been looking forward to seeing Halong Bay since we left home. Visions of limestone islands rising up out of the sea seemed, to me, to be one of the quintessential Asian scenes… vibrant green rice paddies, women wearing conical hats, and wrinkled old men being some of the others.
We had been warned that Halong Bay was losing its luster. That pollution and tourists were taking over and that maybe it should be skipped. I couldn’t skip it though and, although it is polluted and touristy and the weather pretty much sucked, I’m glad that we saw it because it really is amazing.
There are nine million, five hundred and twenty two thousand, three hundred and forty seven travel agencies in Hanoi (seven hundred and thirty three of them are named ‘Sinh Cafe’) all trying to sell tours to Halong Bay. With the adage that ‘you get what you pay for’, we opted for a mid range three day/two night option that would have us stay on the boat one night and on Cat Ba Island for one night.
We bussed out to Halong City to join the throngs of tourists at the dock all trying to get to one of the hundreds of junks in the harbor. I knew there must be hundreds of boats that ply the waters of Halong Bay (based on the number of travel agencies offering tours), but I didn’t expect them to all be in the harbor at once!
We were soon herded onto a boat and it jostled its way out of the dock. As it jostled, we wandered around the decks of the boat marveling at how different promotional pictures can be from the actual product. The boat was nothing like what we’d been sold and I had already started to compose my complaint email in my head when we pulled up next to another junk and were led to our actual boat. This was much better…we had our own small cabin with a private bathroom, there was a small dining room and a deck up top for viewing the scenery.
The weather was not the best…cloudy, foggy and a little misty too…but the scenery was still stunning…I can’t imagine what it would be like if the skies were clear and the sun shining. The fog lent an ethereal quality to the scene, and the karsts seemed to touch both the sea and the sky at the same time.
After about an hour of sailing we arrived in the bay we were to spend the night…along with about 30 other boats. With more than 2000 islands in the area I would have thought there would be more than enough coves to settle into but, no, we all stayed in the same bay…so much for solitude! It was pleasant enough though and other junk boats added to the view.
That afternoon, after the requisite cave visit (it seems, in Asia, there is always a cave, a waterfall, and an ethnic village to visit), we all hopped in kayaks to get a closer look at the islands. It was pretty neat to kayak so close to the karst islands, under the overhanging cliffs and, in one case, through a tunnel into a serenely quiet grotto surrounded by steep, high hills. We returned to the boat to enjoy an afternoon on the deck enjoying a beer and looking out onto the water.
Later on in the evening, after dinner had been served and a few beers been quaffed, the karaoke came out. Karaoke is very popular in this part of the world. Everyone is a singer, and they like it LOUD…it’s as though every karaoke machine only has one volume setting and it’s well past the distortion level. We are not singers but joined in for the chorus where we could…even on the Vietnamese songs much to the delight of the crew on board. It was a lot of fun but I’m sure it didn’t add to the peaceful time that people on other boats were trying to enjoy.
The next day we were transferred to Cat Ba Island. The idea was to do a short hike through the national park, but it turned out to be a climb up a steep hill to a tower that offered amazing views of the area. The climb was pretty tough in parts, especially considering we were wearing our flip flops, and would have been made extremely slippery if it was really raining. I was amazed at some of the older tourists that we encountered – turns out some of them had been sold a ‘quiet, flat, walk through the rainforest’ – they were not happy campers!
We spent the afternoon cleaning up and wandering around Cat Ba town before meeting our group for dinner. We went out with the group for a couple of beers….that inevitably turned into a couple more…but we headed home before the gang headed to the karaoke bar to finish off…enough is enough!
The journey back through Halong Bay was even mistier the next day and visibility was pretty poor. It was still a sight to see though and I’m glad we didn’t miss it – sometimes a place is popular because it really is just that fantastic – this is one of those places.