Holidays In Halong
Thanks in part to the Internet, there are now many ways to book in advance a vacation to Halong Bay in Vietnam. Get the right boat, the right company, and the right weather and Halong Bay will live in your memories for a long, long time. However, join the wrong boat, have the wrong company, and hit bad weather and a trip to this UNESCO World Heritage Site will quickly become a nightmare you can’t escape.
I’d heard from a good friend how his three-day trip aboard a Chinese junk turned sour. First of all, he’d chosen a ‘castaway’ tour thinking it sounded exotic but unfortunately ended up sharing a boat with a dozen backpackers whose sole purpose was to party and secondly the boat did not live up to the expectations set by the tour company in Hanoi. Therefore, I took to the Internet and selected a tour company and boat that I could view online.
We were to meet our guides at Hanoi International Airport for the six-hour drive to the ferry pier where we would board the Galaxy Premium Cruise, a traditional wooden junk-style sloop with 14 luxury cabins, restaurant and bar, and upper viewing deck. The 3-day-2-night tour also included activities such as swimming, kayaking, cave tours, fishing (squidding, actually), and a cooking class.
After a long slog to Tuan Chau ferry pier – more than six hours in minivan with a stop for lunch and a visit to a local art gallery run by blind people, we finally arrived at a crowded pier. This was our first glimpse of the legendary Halong Bay and to be honest it was a scene of total chaos. Keeping my fingers crossed and my temper cooled, I hoped the situation would quickly improve. Once we’d boarded our tender ferry and left the shore, the noise of the gathered crowd quickly began to fade.
Our boat for the next few days was anchored a few hundred metres from the shore, gently bobbing and rocking in calm, deep blue waters. We were welcomed aboard by the boat’s captain and escorted to the restaurant where we were served a cool, refreshing drink. In the meantime, the staff had taken our luggage to our suite.
After a short briefing about safety on board, the captain gave the order to set sail and all the passengers moved up to the viewing deck to peer out at the expansive sea all around and the hundreds of tiny islands that dotted the horizon. The weather was perfect; a beautiful blue sky and a slight cooling breeze. Our fellow passengers came from Singapore, Hong Kong, Europe and Australia and the conversations were lively and spontaneous.
Our Vietnamese cabin crew all spoke very good English and were prepared to go out of their way to make our vacation all the more enjoyable. Around 30 minutes after leaving the pier, it was announced that lunch was being served and we all headed down to the restaurant where fresh seafood and a selection of Vietnamese dishes were served as the boat leisurely cruised to the core of Halong Bay.
In the late afternoon, we arrived at our first activity area, a gorgeous area of the bay famous for its tunnels – both light and dark, called Cat Ba. While most people opted to kayak through the karst and breathtaking naturally form cliffs, several others just dived from the boat into the clear crystal water. After two hours of playfulness, we boarded the boat and made our way to our overnight anchorage, far from any other boats. After freshening up, we made our way to the bar for pre-dinner drinks and later feasted on an impressive dinner served from a set menu.
We awoke the following morning to the beautiful sight of a clear blue sky and calm waters. After taking a leisurely breakfast in the dining room, we moved to upper deck to photograph the stunning cliffs, islets and Halong Bay itself. Our sloop slowly chugged its way to the first adventure of the day: Sung Sot or Surprise Cave located on Bo Hon Island.
Climbing the steep stairway to the entrance of the cave, our group arrived at the mouth of the underground labyrinth. Our guide chatted excitedly about the rock formations that resembled mythical animals and humans that we could see throughout the cave. I have to say, most of our group did not have the same kind of imagination as our guide and many of us failed to see what he was seeing.
With the cool morning slowly giving way to the hot afternoon, we returned to the boat for a barbecue seafood lunch while the crew set about weighing anchor. A one-hour cruise took us to a huge pearl farm that was established by Japanese businessmen almost a century ago and although our guides did their best to encourage us to buy some ‘genuine’ pearls no one in our group did so.
The rest of the day was spent on the beautiful islet of Ba Trai Dao, where couples set off swimming while others chose to kayak around the many private beaches that line the islet. Sitting on the beach sipping cold beers, we watched an almost perfect sunset with the golden sun ever-so-slowly disappearing over the horizon. That evening we dined on a luxurious Vietnamese style dinner while conversing with other passengers about their day and how they were enjoying the trip thus far.
The final morning witnessed a real sea-change in the weather and over breakfast our captain informed us that the harbour master had instructed all boats to return to the harbour as a huge storm was approaching the area. As a small flotilla of boats headed back to Tuan Chau pier, there was only time to practice our hands at making a traditional Asian treat – the fried Spring Roll.