Unforgettable Halong Bay

I arrived in Hanoi a couple of hours late after my original flight was cancelled- typically the airline failed to alert us to this fact until an hour after we were meant to have departed. Nonetheless, we all eventually ended up on a plane bound for Hanoi. In the small Hanoi old town side streets my taxi managed to scrap another taxi and the driver proceeded to exchange what I can only assume were profanities for a couple of minutes before I was finally dropped at Golden Time Hostel 3. It was almost 10pm when I arrived and we were being picked up very early the next morning for a one night and two day “cruise” of Halong Bay with Golden Sun Cruises. Now, I place cruise in quotation marks due to the fact that at $60 a piece, tickets for the cruise would clearly not guarantee any kind of 1st class, or even 2nd class treatment.

After a quick dinner down the road from our hotel, we packed day bags with only what we thought we would need for the next couple of days and headed straight to bed. Our bus picked us up and off we set for a long 4 hour drive out to Halong where the cruise ships docked. It was quite a mundane drive and my friend and I had managed to catch up on the past few days of travel stories over dinner so there wasn’t much to discuss other than frequent exchanges of “Are we there yet?”. The tour guide was friendly and tried to engage many of us along the way and teach us a few short Vietnamese phrases- that did manage to pass a small amount of time. Eventually we arrived at the dock where bus loads of tourists were waiting while the men leading the tours chatted – most likely about how to manage a few extra people onto their ships to get those few extra hundreds of dollars.

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Finally we were aboard a “cruise ship” and it was from here that we learnt that we were in for an interesting 2 days. There was a missing window here and there and many cracks in what seemed like decades old paint, as well as missing floor boards and railings. The bedrooms were some of the worst of it and very unfortunately I had decided not to pack, or forgotten to pack, my sleeping sheet in my day bag for the short trip!! The showers were leaking and hot water was extremely limited with a mad rush to shower in the early hours of the evening before dinner. Nonetheless it was an enjoyable two days, and now we can only look back and laugh. I didn’t mind it all that much to be honest and with what we were paying I was hardly surprised. I think my friend was slightly more taken aback but at least she had booked it so didn’t really have anyone to blame apart from herself!

Aboard the ship we were given lunch with a “welcome drink” of a small glass of orange juice and set sail towards the beautiful Halong Bay – a UNESCO World Heritage Site made up of over 1000 naturally formed giant islands with limestone cliff faces just off the shore of the town. That afternoon we visited the Thien Cung Grotto Cave decked out with colourful artificial lights that perhaps slightly ruined the incredible natural beauty of the hundreds of stalactites and stalagmites. Before dinner we swam in the beautiful ocean waters jumping off the back of the boat- it was freezing cold  compared to the humid Hanoi temperatures we were used to, nonetheless it was well worth it to say we’d swum in Halong Bay! We tried out squid fishing with no success and settled in for a very decent dinner spread of numerous seafood dishes in great quantity. We had a good group on our tour, we bonded over the questionable conditions of the boat and got stuck into the “unlimited” beer that evening. I will point out here that the beer was their own brew that seemed like it had been sitting in the ship’s basement for over a year; and we had to pay well above Hanoi prices for any decent labelled bottles. Nonetheless, another thing to laugh about! We called it pretty early with not a whole lot to do on the boat other than hear each other’s travel stories and discuss future travel plans.

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The next morning we went out on the kayaks between the cliff faces and past the fishing village nearby where we anchored for the night. It was magical and serene (and hard work) kayaking through the beautiful landscape and we managed to get a few snaps before a slight drizzle set in. Once aboard the ship again, we packed up our rooms (with no hot water to wash off with) and settled in for the trip back to Halong. We took a cooking class to pass the time making Hanoi Spring Rolls (delicious) and these ended up making up part of the delicious lunch spread we were served before departing the ship.

All in all it was an adventure. We got what we paid for, and we now look back and only laugh at the questionable conditions of the junk ship and the longing to be aboard the beautiful, most definitely 5-star, Silversea cruise that docked nearby. We met some people with extraordinary stories and we ended up bumping into a few numerous times along the way down the coast. It was definitely worth staying at least a night in the Bay and I would have picked a night on Cat Ba Island over a second aboard the ship if we’d had another night to kill in the Bay.

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