It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Who knows, your country could be on the list as well.) It is a popular tourist destination in the Vietnam province of Quang Ninh. The Bay is known for its calm emerald waters and of course the characteristic limestone islets. Some of the bigger islands might have a beach, but most resemble mesmerising rock formations sticking straight out of the water. Nearly all the visuals one can find online has clear skies, thus you can imagine our excitement that it rained during our visit, which makes our experience different – something we like. Sadly the weather did not reduce the crowd levels, an attribute we prefer, if given a choice.
Our story however, started earlier. Let me rewind a bit.
The distance from our hotel in Hanoi to Ha Long Bay is only 179km, but it took us more than 3.5 hours to travel there by private tour (courtesy of our service provider for this holiday: Odynovo Tours). The driving style is the same as in India: everything is happening at a slow pace (due to traffic and general road conditions). There is absolutely no gearing down (to gain power) to over take. Nope. This occurs at the same as cruising speed. 4th and 5th gear is exclusive for a racing driver then? Roughly on the 2 hour mark, we stopped for a comfort break … at a slick tourist trap of note!
It is roughly a rectangular building. Your driver drops you off at one end and pick you up on the other side. What they don’t tell you, is that they receive a free meal from the establishment – hence the endless stream of tourists being dropped at the front door. Whether they have a burning desire to buy frivolous nonsense or not. Outside is an equally massive sculpture garden with ugly for sale, some copies of classical pieces, but mostly tasteless. Overly endowed David, however, was worth a giggle.
Close to the City of Ha Long, we took a right turn, over a long bridge to the island from where we will launch for the overnight experience in the bay, on-board Emeraude Cruises‘ “steamboat”. We drove past some beautiful boats, what with private balconies and all and I was getting ready to climb out of our vehicle. Fear not. The more we drove along the road, the worst (at least in my mind) the boats got. Until we get to this one and I thought tonight is the night we die. It looks like a fishing trawler – doesn’t exactly scream glamorous and it seems I will have to make do without a balcony.
The seemingly old rust bucket still floats, so maybe it would not be that bad. We still have time to tap out, as the harbour master is worried about the weather and as such has not given the all clear for any boat to leave the harbour. We had a quick word with our guide not to leave until we are definitely cleared to sail. He (the guide) and the driver will overnight nearby, as it does not make logical sense to drive back to Hanoi, only to collect us again tomorrow morning after breakfast. Oh well, crisis seemingly under control, time to have more delicious Vietnamese coffee with the silly tin percolating contraption.
The dark clouds could not hold back any longer and it started to rain. We suspect the harbour master got blackmailed and issued the ‘all clear’ under duress. We boarded somewhat wet. Still have a lingering thought that we are going to die. Oh well too late, there goes our guide and driver. Please can someone speak English on this floating disaster. I found a crew member and rapid fire a string of questions, especially where I can smoke. If we are going to our demise, best it be with a cigarette. “No need to be alarmed, we make alousemense soon”, said the guy. Sorry? “Alousement, wait for alousement.” Turns out, one should not judge Emeraude Cruise on appearance, they are exceptionally well organised and an announcement was made in due course. This specific crew member however just scored himself a nickname – Alousement.
With a full programme ahead, this is today:
12:20 – 12:25 Captain raises anchor
12:25 – 14:30 Cruising Ha Long Bay
12:45 – 14:00 Lunch
14:00 – 15:00 Free & Easy (code for do the hell what you like)
15:00 – 16:00 Guided shore excursion to Sung Sot Grotto and Floating Village
16:00 – 16:30 Crêpe station on Sundeck and cruising to Pearl Farm
16:30 – 17:30 Kayaking or swimming at Pearl Farm
18:00 – 18:30 Vietnamese fresh springroll cooking class (Sundeck)
18:30 – 19:30 Complimentary canapés (Sundeck)
19:30 – 21:00 Dinner
20:00 – 22:00 Squid fishing
20:30 – 23:00 Screening of movie “Indochine”
06:00 – 07:00 Coffee on the Sundeck
06:30 – 07:00 Learn the ancient art of Tai Chi (Sundeck)
07:00 – 08:00 Leave luggage outside cabin
07:30 – 09:30 Cruising Ha Long Bay
07:00 – 08:30 Breakfast
08:30 – 09:00 Check-out
09:30 – 10:00 Disembarkation
There is a rather large group from Myanmar with us and they are boisterous. Anne (from the Philippines, here for better job opportunities) has a warm personality and is a seasoned hostess. She placed them in a separate room, because “Western tourists don’t like the noisy Asian habits” she told us with a wink of the eye. Fair enough, I did compliment her on separating us, hence she told me the reason. Not that the noise is a bother any more, because look, food is here. Pension Fund saw the gap to advise her about his “seafood allergy” and in a nick of time he ended up with a custom menu. Spoiled much? It is his preference, not a medical necessity. From this point onward during our time abroad I sometimes all of a sudden developed an allergy too. I don’t mind seafood, but is not a great fan. We are on holiday, please can we eat stuff we like. The food – on and off the menu – was really great and tasty. Below is everything in one serving.
By now we are too far from land and thus – by default – committed to this overnight excursion. Thanks to the harbour master we are running late on the crazy schedule and there was just enough time to pop into our cabin.
Whoha, this is even smaller than our hotel room in Hanoi! But then again, it is only for one night and with foresight, we brought only a small suitcase (the rest we left with our guide). The big boats drag a smaller boat along – called a tender – for shore excursions. Our boat had two tenders. In the middle of seemingly nowhere, we saw this tuck-shop woman zipping past. I suppose with such a bounty of tourists around, she is guaranteed a few sales. She even stocks wine. No time however, to support the local economic efforts, as we need to contort ourselves into teeny tiny life vests. This bikini top will not save me from drowning, but it is the thought that counts, right?
We are actually en-route to the Sung Sot Grotto. With a good measure of luck we are alone on the tender, except for a crew member and of course the dude driving the thing. The crew guy is trying to tell us the history of the cave and its significance. Who cares, with such beautiful surroundings he is just adding unsolicited noise.
What a mess. The Vietnam government allows 250 boats to overnight in the Bay. Judged by the amount of people, one would swear there is a close down sale here. Luckily dealing with the steep staircase is a breeze, as one can barely move one foot at a time. Speaking of a breeze; nowhere to be found. The humidity is hectic and thus the slow pace of ascending, welcomed. How can I describe the grotto … it is a cave, complete with stalactites and stalagmites as one would expect. Except it is crowded with not much ventilation and it sounds like a united nations picnic, with visitors from all over.
When you exit the cave, you are also on the highest point and the view kinda cool! It started to rain. Wet descending steps. Wet walkway. Avoid puddles. Hairdo long gone. Sorry no photos. A few Hollywood worthy stunts and eventually safe (?) back on tender.
And I introduce to you the SUNDECK! It is on the roof of the boat with a hardcover canopy. Comfy chairs, smoke friendly, staff behind the bar who are eager to please and there is a slight breeze to accompany the gentle rocking of the boat. I have arrived. To the left of me I witnessed the preparation and cleanup of crêpes, springrolls and canapés. Was supposed to visit a Pearl Farm and kayak and swimming in the famous emerald water, but why would you? The bar had a buy-one-get-one cocktail special.
The next morning (with a slightly heavy head) I stumbled upstairs in search for coffee and walked into Alousement’s Tai Chi class.
Pension Fund – who was more sensible with the cocktail special – got up earlier for a shore excursion, with our neighbours. There is something to be said about Europeans and their lack of modesty. No sooner have they reached the landing in front of their cabin and dropped their wet clothing to dry themselves in the cool morning air. Naked.
On our return to land, the clouds gave us whatever they have left in them.
Cheers to Emeraude and Ha Long Bay! OK, let me come clean. My fears about this experience and a premature water death turned out to be completely fictional, if not pure fantasy. This truly felt like a holiday within a holiday!
Four hours later, we were back in Hanoi. Next stop: Ho Chi Minh City.