Cruising Halong Bay – Where the Dragon Descends Into the Sea

Having spent three days dodging armies of moped and taxis, we decided it was time to head out of the city and visit one of Vietnam’s most iconic sights: Halong Bay.

Over 2000 limestone islands rise from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin, all of which Unesco designated a World Heritage Sight in 1994. We were to spend one night on the Imperial Cruise, a small Chinese Junk style ship that caters to about 25 passengers at a time.IMG_3978The legend of Halong Bay is that a great dragon come down from the mountains to the coast, and as it charged, it’s tail carved out valleys on land. When the beast finally dove into the sea, the waters rose up around the land, leaving only the tops of the limestone pinnacles visible. Halong translates as ‘where the dragon descends into the sea’. Since we are visiting during the cool and drizzly season, the islands floated in and out of the low lying fog, giving the whole place a rather ethereal air.IMG_3938IMG_3939IMG_3947
We arrived via a 3 hour bus from Hanoi, stopping halfway at the biggest Kirkland’s outlet imaginable. They were selling everything from immense teak thrones, to t-shirts to cadbury’s chocolate…all shockingly overpriced. We stood around for 25 minutes while they washed the bus (for some reason) and started to chat to, but mainly judge, our fellow travelers (because we are assholes). Our primary focus of ire was a newlywed couple from Colorado, who despite being kitted out in full on adventure clothing, appeared to have never traveled anywhere before.

It’s here I must stop myself and respond briefly to what I am sure you are thinking: “okay, alright…just because you’ve been on the road for a while doesn’t mean you get to turn into hateful travel snobs. Everyone has to start somewhere…” You’re right, my friends…you are right. I hope we haven’t, truly. To be fair, I think we would have ridiculed these folks if we had never set foot outside of the state. They complained every minute on the bus because there was a breeze coming through the door. It’s an old, Vietnamese bus…we’re all a little nippy…put on your adventure sweater! They asked several times to switch seats with the tour guide…who was rightly positioned at the front of the bus so he could talk to us all. They reclined their seats into the laps of our soon-to-be new friends Sam and Natalie…and, of course, they were loudly American.

Back to the awesome nature stuff….

We arrived at the dock and jumped in a small boat which would take us to our floating home for the next 48hrs. We would become very familiar with this little boat, as it ferried us between the Imperial and many other attractions over the next two days.

Oh yeah, I forgot! The hotel we stayed at in Hanoi was lovely, except for the torture bed. It might have been carved out of marble. I love a firm mattress, but this rack was spectacularly uncomfortable. After three days of twisting and turning on it, my back decided to go kaput. One morning, I leant over the sink to get a closer look at a foreign obstacle that had become embedded in my eyeball overnight, and I felt a lovely creak go up my lower back. I didn’t fall on the floor or anything, but I did know that I was going to be dealing with less than optimal conditions for a couple of days. It took a morning of walking around to squarely land me on my back for the rest of the day. Fortunately, I have meds, a back brace and a portable TENS machine that got me through the night. I was not about to cancel the Halong Bay tour as I had been looking forward to it since we decided to visit Vietnam, so the next morning I strapped on the dreaded brace, swallowed some muscle relaxers with a side of percocet and sat in a fog for about 3 hours as we wound through the countryside outside of Hanoi. I don’t know what our fellow folks made of the glazed over red-head, walking at a snail’s pace and taking forever to get on the bus and into her seat…probably thought, “Gah…Americans! Why would you book a trip if you can’t even get on the bus!?” Anyway…our tour guide and Captain held my arm at every potentially risky situation for me, which was very sweet.

The Imperial was lovely and they fed us a delicious meal every 5 hours. Our table mates for the remainder of the trip were Saiji (Japanese-American from San Fransisco) and Sam and Natalie (East-end of London). We totally lucked out with these guys…narrowly avoiding the Colorados. Over lunch we swapped stories about the perils of traveling in Cambodia, which is mainly limited to scammy taxi drivers and card sharks. Saiji entertained us with a great story about a time in Phnom Penh when he was lured to a local’s house under the guise of giving advice about San Fran to an imaginary niece and ended up unwillingly embroiled in a Black Jack game, which ended up with him ‘owing’ a very large man $20,000. He managed to escape with his life, for which we are very glad. Don’t worry, Mum…now we know.

After lunch, we were free to stand on the top deck and watch the scenery slip past.IMG_3945-0IMG_3940-0IMG_3942-0We had loaded up on snacks at the rest stop, but at the inflated prices, too many would have broken the bank. We were in desperate need for a Snickers bar…but we were in the middle of 600sq miles of isolated beauty. If only some enterprising Vietnamese ladies could paddle out to us, like a floating 7-11…IMG_3944IMG_3943SCORE!
The price for a couple of snickers bars was negotiated and they were handed up to us via a small net on a long pole. I waved a large bill at the seller and she immediately sent us up some change before we sent her down payment. Convenience on the high seas!

Amusingly, we learned later from Sam (who, like us, had taken a bit of a dislike to them on sight) that Colorado and his missus got totally scammed by the boat ladies. They sent down a bunch of cash before receiving their merchandise and ended up with a ton of food, a bottle of wine and a case of beer. They couldn’t really do much about it, seeing as the vendor was 15ft below them and incredibly skilled at maneuvering her little boat away from us. I think they just wanted a couple of beers…snicker, snicker…

We were shortly ushered back onto the little boat to tour Hang Sung Sot cave. Hang Sung Sot is translated as Surprise Cave, and it is aptly named as you are not prepared for the scale of it after seeing the opening from the outside. There are three enormous chambers, bathed in different colored light…it was awesome.IMG_3951IMG_3949IMG_3950PLUS, we encountered a cave monster!IMG_3948
We spent about an hour wandering around the cave, which I think was supposed to be about a 45 minute trip but they had to wait for me to catch up. When we emerged, the mist had cleared up a bit and we were greeted by an incredible view from the mouth of the cave.IMG_4073
Back on the boat we were fed again…each main course was presented with a lovely bird sculpture made of vegetables.IMG_4078IMG_4075
The evening’s entertainment was either karaoke or squid fishing. We opted for the fishing, which was exciting for about 5 minutes and then turned into a disappointing 45 minutes. With no real guidance, we dipped our hooks in and out of the water for a long time without any action. We were beginning to think it was a hilarious prank and Halong Bay was entirely squid-free, until Colorado hooked the only squid of the night. The captain looked genuinely surprised at the catch. The squid was about 6 inches long, translucent and very wiggly. Colorado dropped it on the deck when trying to remove it from the hook, where it promptly stuck to the wood. We managed to pry it off and threw it back into the water where it quickly inked away. I was a little disappointed that it didn’t ink all over the guy, who 5 seconds after catching it became a squid fishing expert. Cocky bastard.

Declining the karaoke offer, we stood around on the top deck looking at all the boats docked in the bay. It was a very peaceful scene.IMG_4074
John was going to join a Tai Chi class at 6:30 the next morning, so we opted for an early night on a wonderfully comfy bed.

John got up on time for class, and I dragged myself out for some sunrise photo opportunities. The weather gods were not complying and we had another rather misty, grey day in Halong Bay.IMG_3953
Our first activity after breakfast was a visit to the Halong Bay Pearl Farm. A naturally occurring pearl happens about 1 in 100 times, so pearl farming involves inserting a pearl core into the ovary of an oyster and waiting 3-5 years for the outer pearl layer to surround the core.IMG_3974The farm has hundreds of buckets of oysters submerged around the workshop, and when the time is right, they pull them up and crack ’em open, hoping to find a pearl inside.IMG_3971IMG_3972IMG_3973They’ve certainly increased the odds at creating a pearl, but it’s by no means a guarantee. There’s no way to tell from the outside of an oyster whether the pearl implant has been successful, but we picked one randomly out of the tank and it was cracked open before our eyes. SUCESS! IMG_3975IMG_3976
There was, of course, an opportunity to buy very expensive pearls in the gift shop, but John passed on buying me a $10,000 necklace. We settled for gawking at them instead.IMG_3977
We left the pearl farm for a three hour cruise that would bring us back to Halong City, and then back to Hanoi. While most people sat in the lounge, John and I braved the wind and soaked up as much of the views as we could on the top deck. IMG_4070IMG_4069IMG_4079John said it reminds him of a Roger Dean Yes album cover…I think it looks like Jurassic Park. I kept expecting to see pterodactyls wheeling around the spires.IMG_3946IMG_4081IMG_4080IMG_3979Halong Bay Trivia: As some of our readers have pointed out, Halong Bay appears to be in the The James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. In fact, it was supposed to be shot in Vietnam, with locations in Saigon and Halong Bay, but the Vietnamese Government wouldn’t let them film in Vietnam, so they went to Thailand and substituted Bangkok for Saigon and Phuket for Halong Bay.

We arrived back in Hanoi at about 5pm and checked into another hotel with softer mattresses. The back seems to be getting better, although we are due to get a sleeper train to Hue tonight and we are booked in the top bunks in the cabin. We are going to see if we can bribe one of our cabin mates to switch with me so I can actually lie down and sleep without having to ascend a tiny ladder and leap into an upper berth. I’m not past paying someone off for this privilege, otherwise it will be a long night of wandering the halls.

Halong Bay was definitely the highlight of our trip to Northern Vietnam. We are itching to get out of Hanoi, although we finally grew a set and ate in a local restaurant without the comfort of Trang. The result: yummy food that actually had flavor! We are killing time in a coffee shop and are planning to wander down to Ho Chi Min’s Mausoleum complex in a bit…after that we are Southbound to Vietnam’s Imperial City of Hue!

Categories: Asia, Vietnam

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