Whilst planning our travels in Vietnam, one place that was on the top of both mine and Catriona’s wish list, was Ha Long Bay. We couldn’t wait, therefore, to be picked up by our tour guides as we embarked on our two day, one night excursion of this mystical place.
Ha Long Bay consists of over 2000 limestone islands which rise out of the emeralds waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. It’s so beautiful and revered that it’s now a designated World Heritage site. Ha Long literally translates as, ‘where the dragon descends into the sea’, and legend claims the islands of Ha Long Bay were created by a great dragon from the mountains. As it swam towards the coast, it’s flailing tail gouged out the valleys and crevasses leaving water to fill the remaining areas, creating the breath taking scenery of this bay area.
After roughly a three and a half hour bus journey we arrived in the area of Ha Long (which is located in the North East of Vietnam, not too far from the Chinese borders). We proceeded to walk down to the jetty at Tuan Chau harbour where there was a great array of boats all lined up ready to pick up their passengers. A real buzz echoed as everyone carted their bags down towards the water. We had encountered terrible weather the last few days in Hanoi so we couldn’t believe our luck as the sun started to peek out on the blue sky – perfect!
We all loaded onto our boat, the Stellar, and made our way into the dining room, leaving our bags in the lobby. Initially, we couldn’t get over how posh the boat was; I’m not really sure what we were expecting but the grand and luxurious boat was a welcome surprise for both of us. There were about 30 guests on our boat and a real mix of different ages and nationalities. There were travelers ranging from families to backpackers which kept things really interesting. We all grabbed a seat and were treated to an introductory drink whilst the crew introduced themselves – we met the captain, the bar staff, the chef, the room staff and even that masseuse!
After a little while we were allocated our rooms numbers and given our keys. Catriona and I were sharing a top floor room with a lovely big bed and en-suite bathroom. We literally we loving it and the views out of our window were amazing.
We had an hour or so to sort ourselves out as boat sailed away from the mainland. We unpacked, enjoyed our room, sipped on cocktails and practically ate the entire bunch of lychees that had been left by our bedside – romantic.
We were soon called up for lunch which was absolutely incredible! We feasted on soup, cucumber salad, fried taro (sweet potato) cake, steamed sentinel crab, sautéed squid with celery and leek, steamed basa fish with tomato sauce, sautéed vegetables, rice and fresh fruit! This was obviously very fish heavy – although as a non-seafood eater I certainly didn’t go hungry! I was presented with my very own dishes, chicken, pork and beef…!
Soon we arrived in the picturesque bay and got our first glimpse of the iconic limestone islands. The water was much greyer than we expected and, sadly, there was a lot of rubbish floating around on the surface – a stark reminder of the effects of tourism in the area. It was however, still, breathtakingly stunning. We headed up to the main area of the boat ready for our first excursion of the day – a tour around the bay. We had a couple of options as to how we wanted to do this – we could use a kayak and paddle ourselves around or, alternatively, we could be rowed around on a little boat. Catriona and I, eventually, decided that we would go with the latter choice; kayaking sounded like amazing fun but we wanted to properly appreciate the area – and take photos of course!
We all piled onto the little motor boat which transported us across to the little dock. The kayakers all grabbed their paddles, whilst we loaded onto the little paddle boats. We were taken around the bay areas and through into Cua Van Village which is one of the seven floating villages in Halong. Around 200 people live in this particular village – unfortunately some of them so poor that they can’t afford floating home so it’s not unusual to see a family of four living in one fishing boat. This village has its own school which the children attend three times a week where they learn basic reading, writing and counting. We weren’t surprised to hear that these children learn to swim before they learn to walk!
Fishing is obviously the biggest industry for these villagers, every morning they hold markets and they sell their fish to people from the mainland in exchange for rice and vegetables. Sadly however, the fishing in Halong Bay has deteriorated in recent years as a direct result of tourism. Pollution has seriously depleted the number of fish in these waters which has had a worrying knock on effect for these families who rely on the waters as their only source of income. Realising the gravitas of the situation, the Vietnamese Government now helps subsidise the villagers and recently gifted them kayaks and rowing boats so they could make money from tourism – this made us really appreciate the people showing us around, and although tourism seems to have had such a damaging effect on these people, it’s nice to know that us still coming to visit is no longer as detrimental as it had once been.
I was literally fascinated by the village, we saw so many families, children – even dogs! It’s almost unimaginable how different the lives of these people are to our own. They all looked super happy though and seemed more than pleased to see us come and visit the area. Imagine this scenery being your back garden!
We floated around for roughly and hour before we were all taken back towards our boat where we were all treated to a cocktail, wine, and tropical fruit. It was so nice to lie out on the deck soaking in the sun and enjoying the breath taking surroundings.
After a couple of drinks , we all donned our swimming costumes before diving off the back of the boat and swimming around the bay. The sun was starting to set and it was lovely and warm – it was definitely an experience to remember.
Once we all piled back onto the boats we were treated to glasses of delicious fresh fruit juice which we took back to the room. We pottered around for a little while, had a cheeky power nap, showered and got ready for the evening ahead.
Dinner was at 7pm, and just as we had found at lunch – we certainly weren’t going to go hungry! This time we tucked down into pumpkin soup, banana flower salad, fresh spring rolls, Ha Long squid cake, shrimps steamed on stone, MeKong catfish, grilled beef with black pepper and vegetables. I, again, was given a ridiculously large portion of alternatives including honey chicken, sesame pork and curry!
We shared a table with the same couple from lunch, Noila and Adrian. It was nice to chat away with them about their travels so far.
After dinner – the evening definitely took a bit of a crazy turn. We were, erm, ‘treated’ to a magic show which maybe was not the most slickest of performances, but the flowing alcohol definitely made up for it. The night ended with lots of drinks, lots of cocktails, lots of singing, lots of dancing, and an extremely interesting Mad Mike tribute by one the crew. Other parts of the night are remarkably blurred….
Catriona and I had vowed that we were going to wake up super early the next morning and enjoy Tai Chi out on the deck at 6.30am. Let’s just say that didn’t happen. In fact, it’s safe to say that, not just me and Catriona, but 80% of people on the boat woke up with the worst hangovers of our lives. I still can’t work out what it was – cheap alcohol? Being on the water? Either way – life was a struggle for us all.
We managed to peel ourselves out of bed and crawled up to the deck for breakfast. No one was looking particularly chipper and I could only really stomach a glass of orange juice and a sip of coffee.
After breakfast, we all got changed and headed to the little motor boat where we were taken across to Hang Sửng Sốt – the surprising cave.
This spectacular cave was only discovered in 1993 by a fisherman and was not opened to tourists until 1998. The cave was lit up in all different colours and our guide took great pride in showing us the various rock formations which, erm, looked like certain things. Some you really had to use your imagination for…
The caves were ridiculously humid which probably didn’t help our current level of suffering but we did find the caves really interesting. It was certainly nice, however, to get back out into the fresh air.
After a couple of hours at the caves we headed back towards our boat where we got all packed up and enjoyed a huge buffet lunch – by this time, we were all feeling much more human! We were given a little cookery lesson by the chef who taught us how to make spring rolls which were absolutely delicious. We then soaked up the last remaining rays of the sun out on the deck as the boat began to head home.
This brought our tour of Halong Bay to an end – we sailed back to the mainland and waved goodbye to the incredible views. It really was a once in a lifetime visit and we had such a fun couple of days.