This is the place that James Bond Island (in Thailand) wants to be. If you don't know the name Ha Long Bay then you'll definitely know the place when you see it. It's featured in a couple of JB movies and probably countless others, and I reckon Judith Chalmers has been round here a few times when she was doing the Holiday programme. It's one of the most distinctive looking areas anywhere in the world and as such has been accorded World Heritage Site status so that it will be preserved for years to come, and this is a good thing, but they should really have done this before it turned into a giant boating lake.
A walk down any and every street in Hanoi will deliver around a dozen travel agents and they will all offer
trips to Ha Long Bay, the reason being the one I mentioned earlier, that there is nothing really interesting in Hanoi so the nearest major attraction is Ha Long Bay. Lee and I had chosen a
3 day, 2 night
cruise to the bay and we set off at about 07.30 in the morning on our 4 hour
bus journey to Halong, and
by this time Lee and I were so used to these kind of journeys that we were sitting in the travel agents going "only 4 hours ?? That's not tooooo bad", being the seasoned travellers that we are. I'll not go into any particular detail about the bus trip there, but from now on, if I mention a bus trip of 4 hours or more you can assume it went thus:
07.30 - Get on bus, open book and pretend to read while actually checking out everyone else getting on.
07.30-10.00 - Alternate between reading book and awkward getting-to-know-you chit chat with everyone else on board
10.00-10.30 - toilet stop at a rest point that also doubles as a warehouse for blind people to sell their pottery and wood carvings
10.30-12.00 - Reading book only as folk just want to get there and their bum's are getting numb.
Once you actually get within 2 miles of HLB, you can feel everyone perk up a bit and you realise that you're staring at one of the nicest looking places on earth. There's about
2,000 small limestone islands rising out of the bay and they are all really close together
and most are uninhabited but they look awesome, especially in the morning mist that was nicely burning off for our arrival. By the time we had sorted out who was going on what boat, it was comfortably into the 30's and warming up nicely so everyone got on board sharpish and got the swimmers on and headed up on deck for a beer and a proper introduction. The thing is though, there are about three hundred different boats and tours that leave on the bay so once we'd set off, we did so with about another 50 boats in tow, all off to show everyone the natural wonder that is HLB. This many boats in such a small area of water cannot be a good thing for a World Heritage listed site, but it would appear that the need to provide income and jobs to the area comes first. In such a poor country, you can almost see their point but you are in two minds a little.
During our bus journey in the morning, we had picked up a fairly large group of people at one of the hotels in hanoi and they all piled aboard, far more
full of energy and personality than anyone should be at that time of the morning, they even had skateboards with them, I mean, who in their right mind takes a skateboard travelling with them, let alone on a boating trip. They were a group of guys and gals from Californ-i-a in the US of A and and damn fine looking group they were as well, all tanned and wearing lacrosse tops. If you're like me, then your initial response to a group of good-looking, lively young people jumping on your bus at half past early in the morning, would not be a favourable one. Turns out though, in this case you'd be wrong. It was pretty clear from the start that these guys were going to be great company for the weekend and to top it all off, one of them knew all about cameras and could give everyone tips on how their cameras worked which was a bonus. There were also a couple of young lads from Nottingham who had the best travel story we've heard so far in the last two years. If I can be bothered, I'll tell you later, 'cos it's a beauty.
Our first stop on the tour were the
cave, the largest of the
grottos in Halong area. By this time everyone was in a good mood thanks to some cracking banter, some cracking Tiger Beers and some cracking weather. There was one disappointment awaiting the male members of the group though, as when we arrived there was a massive banner strung across the cliff face welcoming the entrants of the Miss Universe contest to the caves. The day before. This crushing blow aside, the caves are really spectacular and beautifully lit and would be worth a walk around themselves but we had a guide as well who would let us know all about the different rock formations within the caves. I have to say some them were brilliant, like the rock in the shape of a lions head that was amazing but some of them truly stretched the imagination. Our guide pointed at one formation with his wee laser pointer, informing us it was a "a couple". Seriously, that was what they were supposed to be, "a couple", I'm assuming he meant a man and a woman, but this was pushing it to say the least. There were numerous
other significant formations that had become a matter of folklore for the Buddhist religion in the caves, so when our guide asked us what else we could see, I don't think he was too impressed when Nick shouted out "The Virgin Mary, up there in the corner".
Back on board our fairly luxurious junk boat, it was now time to head for the floating town where we were given the opportunity to do a bit of kayaking. It was literally a town on the water, with loads of little pontoons anchored in the bay where they could either swim or sail to the neighbour's or the shops. There were a few dogs barking at the boats but we weren't sure if they were pets, or tomorrow night's dinner but you put these things out of your mind around here. Lee and I had not had a day at the beach in about 6 months by this time (aye, I know, yer hearts are bleeding for us) so we took the opportunity to relax on top of the boat while the others took off for their canoeing. A couple of Bombay Saph's later, and Lee and I were relaxed as
a couple of on-the-way newts and it turned out that we hadn't really missed anything on the canoe's after all and this kind of set the pattern for the rest of the evening. The weather had come out for us and it was one of those moments when you look around you and you're surrounded by great weather, surroundings and company and you just have a great big grin on your face, it was really nice. We were also given the chance for a swim here and it was great to jump into really warm water off the top of the boat and relax for the rest of the day. It also came out during conversation that the American guys, particularly Packie, wanted to see the Euro Final that was showing that night. Now, we are in the middle of Halong Bay in South East Asia and we're pestering the crew to be able to see a game of football being played at 2 o'clock in the morning in Europe so we weren't holding out much hope so we just kept on drinking into the night. About midnight, we are still chatting away when this guy walks up the top
deck of the boat and sits down and says hi, thing is, he's nothing to do with our boat so we kind of wondered how on earth he'd managed to get onto the boat in the middle of the bay. Another boat had actually tied up to the back of our boat later on once it had gotten darker as there only one anchor point at this point so the guy had simply jumped from their deck to ours and sat down and introduced himself.
It got to 01.45 in the morning and everyone had given up hope regarding the football so we were all about to head to bed when all of a sudden, the guys downstairs managed to get the satellite working and there right in front of us was the European Championship finals in all it's glory. Word had spread to the area by this time and we then had the bizarre spectacle of loads of boats turning up alongside ours unloading German, Dutch, French and Spanish tourists onto ours and pretty soon we had about 30 guys all crammed into the dining area of our boat trying to see the action. Now the quality of
the picture was ropey best and it kept cutting out every so often but everyone seemed ready to out up with it so when one of the crew switched the TV off after 20 minutes, there were a few funny looks. He mentioned to us that for 30 baht (about a dollar, or 50p) we could go to another boat that had a great picture so we all stumped up[ the cash and they put us all in a boat and threw in 24 beers for good measure and so you had everyone bouncing across Ha Long Bay at half two in the morning looking like a covert UN Football Hooligan Patrol and hopping aboard this larger boat where we were able to watch the entire game un-interupted. It's possibly the craziest place I've ever watched a game of football. There was one guy from Spain amongst us but he could not have been less chuffed when Spain won because was from Barcelona and therefore Catalunian (It''s a long story, so if you're interested further, google it).
Our second day looked like it was going to be a bit more active and interesting, as we were being taken to
Cat Ba island, the largest island in the Bay and we would be taken from our floating digs to a hotel where we could have a good shower and then get back on the bus and take off for a bike ride around the island and then some R&R on Monkey Island. We'd been given a couple of options for this part of the trip and Lee and I had opted for the cycling option while everyone else on the trip went for the stroll to the top of the hill for a good view and by the end of it, I think everyone felt like they wanted to do the opposite of what they had chosen. Lee and I got taken down this road to nowhere by our guide who then turned off the road and headed into the fields for a bit of off-road action. It was about 35 degrees by this point so the last thing either of us wanted was to have to exert ourselves beyond anything uncomfortable and when Lee had a wee mishap and ended up coming off the bike and getting ankle deep in mud, it kinda took the polish off the whole
thing, and we were ready to head back. Turns out when everyone else had gotten back they had only really seen the view for a couple of minutes and then headed straight back down the hill again. They were fed up as they had seen nothing and we were bumping our gums 'cos the pair of us were saddle sore seeing as the last time we were on a bike, we were in black and white !!
Next stop was Monkey Island which as names go was only 50% correct as it was indeed surrounded completely by water, but contained not a trace of our simian cousins from what we could see. Monkey Island was just an excuse to crash on the beach for three hours and fill in a bit of time and it was nice but by the time the beach got invaded by a few hundred Vietnamese on their summer hols, we were ready to head back to the boat. Monkey Island now has the distinction of being the last resting place of the thongs that Lee bought me for my 30th, which went down really well as we now had to buy me a new
pair of thongs, ooooops !! The rest of the day was spent cruising leisurely back to Cat Ba island and it really gave you a chance to take on this part of the world, it's really spectacular, though one criticism would be the number of boats allowed to operate in the park. A quick swim at part of the beach on Monkey Island left you covered in a thick coating of green slime and the Bay is in genuine danger of becoming polluted beyond repair and this would be a great shame. Our final night on Cat Ba island was spent having a game of pool and a beer with the rest of the group, not a late one you understand, as we had an early rise so that we could enjoy the two hour boat journey back to the mainland and then the 4 hour bus journey back to Hanoi. Just as we had entered Hanoi again though, it started to absolutely chuck it down so for once the weather gods had smiled upon us so perhaps we had done something right.
This trip had only cost us something like $60 each so about 25 pounds and was
a brilliant value for money trip. The food was fairly lousy but only because they served the same thing all the time but this was the only complaint from the whole weekend. Not bad going I think you'll agree.
Off now for a wee jaunt down to Saigon. Bye.
Source: Travel Blogs