Ha Long Bay is one of those places that appears on those lists; 10 most beautiful places in the world, 10 places you have to see before you die, 17 places that are awesome, etc etc. This is fair enough as the bay is incredibly beautiful, limestone karsts sticking straight up out of “emerald green” water. What most of these lists don’t mention is that during Northern Vietnam’s winter the entire bay is permanently shrouded in mist and fog that adds to the atmosphere but massively reduces visibility!
We knew this before we left though and our choice of who to go with was partly decided by the great package that they put together. One night on a boat, one night on a hotel in Cat BA Island, a visit to Lan Ha Bay as well as Ha Long and also some hiking on the Island. The other reason that we went with Vega Travel was because their office was a stone’s throw from our hotel. Jen also spent hours researching so we had a good idea of what to expect.
When we booked the trip we hadn’t imagined that the night before we would be drinking our body-weights in local fresh beer. This was one of our favourite pastimes in Hanoi and led to a few hours spent on Beer Corner watching the world go by. On this particular evening we were entertained by a tiny Vietnamese girl who thought it would be hilarious to pelt me and Jen with popcorn like a ninja from a hiding position. We all had a great time until her mum produced an iPad for her to play with instead and then she lost all interest in the two of us.
The evening led to one seriously uncomfortable three and a half hour minibus ride to the Ha Long harbour. It was not pretty, neither were we but nobody on our tour seemed to hold it against us for too long. It was a small group of 14 with 13 coming from mainland Europe and one lone Argentinian.
Once on board the boat we unloaded our stuff in our cabins – we even had a nice little balcony off the back of the boat. This would have been great if the sun was shining but as it was it just meant that we could watch the karsts drift by even whilst sitting on the toilet (if we left the door open). Lunch was a lovely collection of local dishes including a whole steamed fish. Between the five on our table we only ate about two thirds of the food and this would set the tone for the whole trip – brilliant but bottomless food.
A lot of our time throughout the three day two night tour was spent drifting through the two bays of Ha long and Lan Ha. We sat on the top deck on loungers as incredible limestone formations drifted past. It was extremely relaxing and a real change of pace from the bustle of Hanoi. Pretty soon we had our first of many long chats with our absolutely fantastic guide Chook.
So often guides simply tell you about the area, tell you when to get up, what’s happening next and that’s about it. With Chook it was the complete opposite. He was still incredibly organised so that everything ran very smoothly but he was an incredibly personable guide and was always willing to talk about any topic with insight and passion.
He was very political and this was our first real encounter with that for a long time, which was a nice surprise and incredibly, incredibly interesting. He spoke at length about the struggles that his country is facing. Some 55% of the population were born since 1975 whilst 60% of the population are farmers living essentially from hand to mouth. He called bullshit (his words, his English was awesome) on the supposed communist ideals of the country by describing the monumental government control and the fact that it is still so expensive to send kids to school or to receive healthcare.
He spoke about the difficulties of those wishing to leave the rural life behind. Their wages or reward for growing rice are so meagre that they can’t afford to move to the city. Over the course of the three days we found out how land is never owned by anyone other than “the public” which means the government and certainly not an individual. Many of the older generation live in cubes in the old town measuring two metres by three metres by two metres.
We discussed the changing generation and their outlook and also their thoughts on the west. He spoke at length about his uncle and his father who had both fought in the war against America. His uncle maintained a bitter hatred for the West whilst his father had put it behind him and was content to live hand to mouth in the countryside (as long as he can find the money each year to pay for any necessary healthcare). For the younger generations according to Chook and a few others we met in Hanoi there is great ambition but also a sense of helplessness. They see how hard it will be to make genuine change in this country where the hammer and sickle still flies high.
The first sight that Chook led us through was a huge cave system that was all lit up and filled with tourists from the 500-odd boats that ply these waters. We wandered through amazed at the beauty of them but equally amazed at the numbers here at one time and some of the, erm, dodgier boats that coughed black smoke everywhere in this Unesco recognised area.
The late afternoon was then spent kayaking around the harbour and through a tunnel into an enclosed lagoon where a troop of monkeys were clambering around on the cliffs. We also spotted a tiny kingfisher flying elegantly over the water. It was a very relaxing few hours out on the water and having been sitting in the less than clean kayak for so long I decided that a quick dip in the waters afterwards was the way forward. Chilly and refreshing are two adjectives that come to mind.
The evening was spent drinking two bottles of white wine with the third English person on board, Michael, who works as an editor for a website called The Conversation that aims to provide expert opinion on current affairs. Well worth a look. We also had several after dinner challenges from barman Li involving toothpicks and all sorts. At one point he had four forks balanced on top of a wine bottle using three toothpicks – an impressive party trick.
After a few hours sleep we were up early to walk to the top of Titop mountain. Whilst mountain is a slight exaggeration there were over 250 stairs and at 8am after a heavy breakfast it had us panting. The views were limited but still it was atmospheric and as the first group up there it was at least quiet for about five minutes before the hordes arrived. A paddle in the sea was an effective way of cooling us all down. A few hours later we were to split up with 5 of us heading to Cat Ba Island and Lan Ha Bay and the rest heading back to the chaos of Hanoi.
Cat Ba Island is the largest island in the area and supports a good sized town, hundreds of fishermen and floating villages galore. It is also home to a rice wine maker who knows how to knock your socks off. That would have to wait until we had cycled around the island for about half an hour and then hiked up and around a small mountain in the middle of the island.
We had a great time clambering up and down the mountain and even a little rock climbing and tree root abseiling. Jen was terrified I would break my leg and mess up our trek to base camp but thankfully nothing went wrong. After cycling back we were on board and it was lunch, rice wine and beer time before the afternoon kayak.
A good few hours were spent over lunch as once again the chef prepared far too much with all of it being very agreeable including chips! We hadn’t had chips for a long time so it was pretty exciting to be eating them as the splendour of Lan Ha Bay and its own limestone karsts rolled passed. With the rice wine taking hold (even though Pablo, the Argentinian, had tried to hide the bottle) we were in no rush to kayak but eventually we went for it and enjoyed paddling around. One amorous couple in their floating house seemed less enamoured with the situation. Pretty sure we had disturbed them.
We spent the night on Cat Ba Island in a hotel that had us thinking of The Shining and little girls on trikes as walked its echoey corridor searching for any other signs of life. Dinner was in town and was incredibly unremarkable. We had a good night sleep though and set off back to the boat to cruise back to terra firma and the prospect of another four hour minibus ride over the unfinished road back to Hanoi.
It was a great trip and we definitely chose a great company to go with in the shape of Vega Travel. The boat was clean, the food good, our guide fantastic and the whole thing ran like clockwork with no sitting around or waiting for anything.
We had one more day in Hanoi to explore, walk around, drink more bia hoi before jumping on a train down to Dong Hoi and the caves!