Winter Break: Day and night on Halong Bay

Previous: First full day in Hanoi
Next: Castaway island

After a good sleep, we were up and at ‘em pretty early because we had to be ready to board our 4 hour shuttle bound for Halong Bay at 8am. Another hostel breakfast, a final pack of the cruise luggage, one last unnecessary cold shower and a drop of the remaining luggage in the secure room and we were ready to go.

We joined the rest of our soon to be excursion mates in the lobby and the size up began. Everyone was subtly checking each other out, forming first impressions about who we would be spending the next 2 nights and 3 days with, hoping and praying that they wouldn’t be jackoffs with the ability to drive you mad. Our group was only 19 people. We were told that they can be as large as 30 people this time of year. There were only 2 other couples, and the rest appeared to be flying solo or traveling with another friend. We even had a mother/daughter team from Canada. Thankfully, everyone seemed alright and nothing to be alarmed of. Also, we started wondering what kind of weather would greet us on Halong Bay. Hanoi had been cooling, even a bit rainy.

We met our two tour guides for the trip and boarded the pink shuttle. Tom was from New Zealand and worked for Hanoi Backpackers Hostel. Yang was from Vietnam and worked for Halong Phoenix Cruiser which I think operated the cruise boat, or junk, as well as provided transportation back and forth. Both were super hung over from a hard night of boozing, but friendly and prepared to provide a good experience on Halong Bay.

First thing we did aboard the shuttle was introduce ourselves and where we are from. The U.S., Canada, Singapore, Taiwan, Australia, Germany and England were all representing. I love to travel with groups of people from all over the world. It’s always fun to hear so many different accents working together, sharing vernacular and expressions. And I was really hoping that this collection of world travelers would be able to provide some good storytelling when the opportunity presented itself.

On our way out of Hanoi, I couldn’t help but continue to frown upon the level of pollution. It was disgusting. I’m sure some of it was the morning mist and fog, as the day had not yet warmed up, but regardless it was nasty. After we crossed a bridge and were close to entering the highway, there was stand after little stand on the shoulder of the road selling baguettes and various breads. How many people really pull over in such a location, to grab a loaf of pollution and exhaust flavored bread to munch on the way home from work or slice up with dinner? But judging by the amount of bread to found on the side of the road, the answer is a quite a few.

This 4 hour commute went through a bunch of little towns, all littered with dirty streets, electronics shops, patches of green rice growing land, cows and yaks sharing the road with cars, motorbikes and trucks, electric power plants, and what we learned later… a huge amount of dog restaurants. It was during this portion of the shuttle ride that my girl and I were filled in on the fact that the weather on Halong Bay had been pretty damn cold the last few days and far from ideal. At about the half way mark we pulled into a Vietnamese rest stop. It was nice to drain and stretch our legs, even if the Pringles and Coca-Cola were 3-4 times more expensive as anywhere else in Vietnam.

After another 2 hours on the shuttle we finally arrived at the boarding area for the Halong Bay cruises. The whole area was slammed with people coming and going. We reserved our trip fairly early, but judging by the amazing amount of tourists swarming the area and the fact that there are a ridiculous amount of boats coming in and out of the harbor, I have a hard time thinking that there aren’t a glut of rooms aboard junk boats available at all times on short notice.

We boarded the little transfer boat and set out for our junk. The quick trip through the harbor was pretty cool. We weaved in and out of available ocean space between boats, admired the magnitude of the tourism industry, and checked out all the boats, wondering which one we would eventually call home while listening to Yang give a little history on Halong Bay as well as prepare us for what to expect once we boarded the big boat. The anticipation was killing us. As we pulled up to our boat, deemed that Jolly Roger by the hostel, it was really no surprise to find that it looked pretty identical to most of them that we saw on our trip through the harbor. But the difference was… this one was ours. And as soon as we got on the boat, it started to rain.

We ditched the luggage in the entry way and sat in the community dining room/ bar area and awaited instructions. After being reminded of the itinerary for the afternoon, we received our room keys and dispersed to check out the accommodations. My girl and I really lucked out with our room. They are all small, but we were on the completely other side of the boat from the community room, and on the same floor. We would come to find out later that those with rooms below and directly next to the community room were forced to stay up for quite a while due to the fun that ensued that night. The room had a bed, some closet space, a fan and a bathroom… really everything that you would need. It proved to be a fine place to stay the night, especially because we were provided with a thick blanket to stay warm. We found out the next morning that not everyone else was so lucky.

We had a little time to kill before lunch and most of us gathered on top of the boat to further get to know each other and take in the beautiful imagery of Halong Bay. There are just under 2,000 limestone islands in the area and they seem to jump out of the water in clusters. It felt like we were in a pirate movie.

Everyone met in the community room for a delicious meal. Lunch consisted of fried pork cutlet, fried squid, rice, a cole slaw type of cabbage dish, a spicy chicken dish, whole un-peeled shrimp that nobody touched, a salad and a few chicken dishes.

After lunch we were given the opportunity to jump off the boat into the ocean, in preparation for the kayak excursion that would consume the remainder of the afternoon. I am not afraid of many things, but deep water is something that terrifies me. What’s going on down there, under me? How deep is it? Why can’t I see anything? But even knowing all of this, I knew I’d be jumping in. I’d say about ¾ of our fellow boat mates took the plunge. It was cold, and a little scary, and super salty, but way worth it. It had been a long time since I have had the chance to swim in the ocean and there was no way I was passing this up.

Next we all grabbed the kayaks and set off to explore Halong Bay. Besides spending the day exploring Angkor Wat and surrounding temples later this same vacation, being able to kayak around Halong Bay is probably the most moving thing we did. Once you got over the initial steering and coordination aspect of teamwork that is required to maneuver a kayak, the views were spectacular. The biggest let down of the whole trip was not being able to pack a camera.

We were on the water for easily 2 hours, maybe 2.5. The journey took us in between and around islands, in the big open waters and through caves that led you to secluded lagoon type environments. The most puzzling part of this journey was the floating boat markets. Not big boats, but little row boats, manned by one lady, with a sheet of plastic over her convenience store selection of snacks, soliciting you as you kayaked by. Seriously? Who has money on them at this point in time? I can’t imagine grabbing a coke, some Pringles and a pack of smokes from this lady, but obviously someone is doing it otherwise they wouldn’t be out there.

When we returned to the boat, we contemplated taking the plunge off the top again, swimming around and taking in the bay from inside the water… but we were feeling way too frozen from our kayak expedition in the rain. Instead, we decided to retire to our room for a hot shower and a nap before dinner. It felt so good to warm up and chill out after a long travel and action packed day to that point.

Dinner was another amazing meal of rice, clams, a whole fish, fries, and I think a beef and a chicken dish. People started getting lubed up, swilling and beers and mixed drinks and pre-funking for a fun party night aboard the Jolly Roger. My girl and I don’t really drink anymore, but found it humorous watching the majority of the boat kick it up a notch. Fortunately everyone that we shared our experience with was respectful and in control. I had heard horror stories of partied out travelers making a spectacle of themselves on these trips, and that definitely wasn’t the case here.

We spent most of the remainder of the night in the community room as it was pretty cold outside. The happy hour was 3 drinks for the price of 2, and we found out later from a few of the partakers that the mixed drinks only had ½ a shot. That said, I don’t think too much complaining is warranted because the price was cheap as it is. Different drinking games broke out and people drifted in and out participation. An excellent selection of music was played on the stereo as people were swapping ipods. As drinking game rules were established, a few people ended up jumping off the boat in to the deep dark ocean as the night progressed.

When the smoke got a little unbearable, my girl and I went up to the outdoor lounge area on top of the boat to take in the night view of Halong Bay. Many, many boats were anchored in our area and I’m assuming that most of the people on these boats were doing the same thing. We were hoping to see some stars but had no such luck. Finally, after a long day of travel, active sporting and sightseeing, we decided to retire for the night. Tomorrow we would be transferring to another boat which would get us to Castaway Island a few hours away for another day of activities and a night on the island.

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~ by ripcitytoseoul on January 13, 2010.

4 Responses to “Winter Break: Day and night on Halong Bay”

  1. […] rest of the Angkor Temples Angkor Wat Hello Cambodia Goodbye Vietnam Back to Hanoi Castaway Island Day and night on Halong Bay First full day in Hanoi Christmas in […]

  2. […] Break: Castaway Island Previous: Day and night on Halong Bay Next: Back to […]

  3. Good tip and report for me. Thanks alot.

  4. […] in Hanoi First full day in Hanoi Day and night on Halong Bay Castaway Island Back to Hanoi Goodbye Vietnam Hello Cambodia Angkor Wat The rest of the Angkor […]

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