On the shuttle to Halong Bay.
We had another great breakfast at our hotel - today I tried the omelette (yum!). We were super excited to be on our way to Halong Bay - we heard it was absolutely gorgeous, and the photos we had seen were amazing. We had to take a shuttle about 3 - 3 1/2 hours out of Hanoi - it was quite a bumpy ride, but at least there were paved roads. Our tour group (South Pacific) seemed a bit disorganized ... when we got to the docks there were several buses, vans, shuttles, etc. all crammed together in chaos. We were randomly separated into smaller groups and then told to follow different guides. Our group immediately lost 2 members - young korean men who didn't speak any vietnamese or english.
Farms along the way to Halong Bay.
We waited on the small boat for a while - finally they were discovered, but then it seemed our boat was overbooked, so 2 american girls were asked to go with another group. We were a little concerned with this, but after weeks of travelling you just have to accept that things won't always go smoothly ...
Once we were out on the water, our moods lightened. We soon boarded our boat - the Phoenix Cruiser - it was very nice with a top deck with a cabana and several lounge chairs, a nice dining area in the middle deck and we were relieved to find our rooms to be clean (although a bit small). This boat was not our first choice, which was fully booked, but it seemed to be a nice compromise and cheaper too ($99 p/p). The rest of the guests on the cruiser were very nice - a mixed bunch - a French Vietnamese diplomat and his Austrian wife and children; an English diplomat with his asian wife and children; a French woman living in Canada traveling alone (good for her!); etc.
There were so many different languages being spoken - very cool.
I had read some blogs about other people's bad experiences with the food on these halong bay cruises - i'm glad to say our cruiser did not have such issues. Our food was quite good (but the mixed drinks were terrible - stick with water, sodas, beer and wine - they don't really have anyone equipped to be a bartender on board). We had Vietnamese salads, grilled fish, fried shrimp, sauteed veggies, etc. Everything was quite good - not sure how they prepared all the food in the tiny kitchen in the back ...
Soon we were swept away by the gorgeous scenery surrounding us - Halong Bay is absolutely breathtaking! Words cannot do it justice.
It is lovely and serene ... and what is that ... no honking???? after days of incessant honking, the peace and quiet of the bay was a welcome change. ahhhh.... A and I took tons of pictures ... each one more beautiful than the last. We did notice there was quite a bit of pollution ... our guide told us there aren't any regulations so all the boats just dump their garbage straight into the water. Gasp! How horrid! The Vietnamese government really needs to do something about this soon, before the by is beyond repair. It would be a travesty if such a natural wonder is destroyed by mankind.
Our first stop was to the Surprising Cave - a natural wonder discovered around 1911 by some frenchmen (that's what we were told) .
Rest stop (or in other words, tourist trap) - here are some artisans making their wares.
.. We docked in a lovely cove and had to walk about narrow steps to enter the move of the cave. (Note
- they don't warn you about this but these steps are not handicap accessible and can be quite difficult for older people; we had one person in our tour that wasn't able to go up which is a shame...) Anyways, the cave is quite interesting, and cool inside. It was refreshing to get out of the heat - and then we were presented with amazing formations (some of which were lit up with different color lights for the tourists). I'm surprised they allow flash photography, but the pictures actually turn out better if you turn off your flash. We walked through the entire place - our guide, though sweet, didn't really give very detailed explanations .
.. I overheard some of the other english speaking guides retelling legends, etc., which seemed very interesting... but our guide really just said - "see, that looks like a penis.... that looks like a snake ... that looks like the virgin mary, etc." But even without explanation, the cave was a must-see.
After the cave adventure, we were told that we could go kayaking. Again, this was an oversight by our tour group - they never explained this to people so no one was prepared; only a few people had on swim suits, and some people didn't want to take their valuables into the kayak, but the only alternative was to leave it on the small boat and risk theft. Luckily A and I did wear our swimsuits, so we opted to go kayaking, with a small group of people.
At the dock.
Our guide went out first and said he would wait for us to guide us into another set of caves. Of course, by the time we got into the water, our guide was nowhere to be seen. A few of us just kayaked around the bay and then headed back. Regardless A and I had a lot of fun kayaking - and it was good exercise to boot! :) When I got back, I had a Pringles craving and bought some from the women in the small rowboats - but the one she gave me looked really old and already opened. I had to talk her into exchanging it with another one - so be careful when you buy things from the boatwomen! (and I noticed they quoted different prices to men versus women. very annoying!)
We returned to our cruiser just in time to admire the sunset.
Random scenic shot.
Gorgeous!!! Soon we had another lovely dinner - lots of fresh seafood, fried items, etc. I hadn't really been drinking this entire trip (other than the sloppy drunk night), so I ordered a bottle of wine and convinced A to drink 2 glasses. She was a trooper! I drank the rest of the bottle ... I didn't want to waste it after all...
We had a lovely time speaking with the French woman - she's travelled so much throughout the world - very cool. She told us of some of her mishaps on her Vietnam trip - she lost her camera on the first day and was scammed by a motorcycle taxi. You always have to be more cautious when travelling by yourself, esp as a woman. A and I usually walked and only took one taxi around town and we were very clear that we would only pay the agreed-to price.
They do love dragons here...
I think the best tip is to negotiate the fare clearly, take out that amount and put it in your pocket, so when you are ready to pay, you aren't opening up your wallet again. Just hand them the fare and get out. (It also helps to ask your hotel what the average fare should be so you aren't being ripped off.) This of course doesn't resolve the problem of when they take you to the wrong location - best thing is to always have a map on hand and your hotel's business card if you need to get back.
Wine is hitting me now ... sleepy. Bed is hard ...