06.06.2010 - 08.06.2010 35 °C
For this part of our trip we decided to take an easy approach by visiting Northern Vietnam’s highlights through guided tours. We (Karl, Ian and me) did a tiny bit of research and managed to book the tours for really cheap but we later found that cheapness comes at a rather different price.
On our first tour we visited Halong Bay which is located in North Eastern Vietnam and it literally borders Mainland China. In 1994, the core zone of Halong Bay was listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site and once you see the bay it is easy to see why. In the morning when the mini bus picked us up from our hotel we were feeling a little uneasy as the bus was an hour late and no other tourists were in sight. But this uneasy feeling was soon replaced by an anxiety as we sped down the road overtaking anything that got in our way – obviously the driver had to make up lost time. During the bus ride we witnessed a near fatality where two motorcyclists crashed into one another and as we dodged to avoid them we nearly hit an 'innocent' cyclist riding down the wrong side of the motorway. In Vietnam, road accidents are a daily part of driving life and thankfully we were able to avoid being part of one. When we arrived at the boat dock our passports were then taken from us as my uneasy feeling returned as I watched my most valuable possession being put in a plastic carrier bag! The apparent reason for this was that since we would be sailing so close to the Chinese border, there was a chance that customs could demand to see our passports and it was also prevent us from abandoning ship and swimming to China. We later found out this was a load of nonsense and the reason why they took our passports was in the event that we would do a runner and not pay for the bar-tab. I think they know backpackers way too well.
The cruise was a 2 day and 1 night tour which meant we got to sleep on the boat. We started off the day by getting to know our boat buddies over a rather plain meal of rice, green leaves and one fish between six people and this is one of the main reasons why you should pay a little extra for the tour. As we sailed around the beautiful waters of Halong bay we passed through some of the 3000 amazing limestone islands. These islands are thousands of years old and considered as one of Vietnam’s most spectacular sights and it really is a stunning sight to behold. On our first stop we arrived at a massive underwater cave called the Thien Chung grotto which was just amazing. It literally took 40 minutes to walk around the cave and when you reach the light at the end of the tunnel you encounter panoramic views of limestone islands sitting like statues peacefully on the clear turquoise water.
This was the last time we would be on solid land as the remainder of the tour was spent sailing. During this time you sail around stunning floating villages where all the fishermen and their families live even with their dogs! After a hard day’s sailing it is then time to settle down for the night and anchor up where you are free to do what you want. We then spent the early evening jumping off the top deck into the warm water, swimming, playing drinking games and having to suffer another dreadful meal that was apparently beef but I had my suspicions that it was mostly likely dog or a combination of both. I have to say though, even though the cabin crew and the food weren’t the nicest, I really had a fantastic day and we were very lucky to have a great bunch of people on our boat who really made the trip.
In the morning we then woke to incredible views and as I chilled on the top-deck soaking up the rays we made our way back slowly to the mainland. For the best part of the day, we went kayaking around the limestone islands which was great fun but tiring on the old arms so I ensured that Karl was doing most of the hard-work. Iain was also unfortunate to be the last person in the queue and he had to then kayak all by himself. When we arrived back at dock in the afternoon we were then taken to a restaurant for a meal which was tasty and by this point I was very relieved to eat after literally feeling starved. Overall, Halong Bay is a must see for anyone who is visits Vietnam, but it really is worthwhile to pay a little extra and there is no reason why your tour will not be perfect.