Jeff and I were sunbaking under the hot Vietnamese sun, passing a large plastic bottle of clear liquid around the deck of the boat. Inside was tonic, with a considerable amount of cheap gin, and we were sharing it with the other passengers to celebrate my 26th birthday. What better way to celebrate than to visit majestic Ha Long Bay!
The junk, one of hundreds of identical boats that cruised around the bay, was like a big, white, creaking wooden hotel. The cabins were downstairs, a main dining room/bar on the second level, and a lazy open deck on the top had long lounge chairs to enjoy the sun. Steel masts stretched upwards from the deck, but she rarely unfurled her distinctive sails. It’s old wooden hull protested and groaned as we sailed calmly around the bay, and shuddered with alarming splintery cracks when we docked alongside other junks.
Ha Long Bay is a wonder. It’s limestone karsts are great sentinels, thousands of them, a meeting of ancient rock giants on guard in the bay, each one blossoming with lush green foliage. The waters were a rich blue green during our visit and the air smelled of the ocean. The first stop on the two-day tour was a trip through Sung Sot cave, a beautiful natural cave formation gone horribly wrong. Plastic surgery and too much makeup: the concreted walkways and multi-coloured lights are too much.
There was another stop that morning, at one of the floating villages in the bay, a series of floating wooden platforms and huts sitting calmly in the middle of the bay. The people who live here live for fishing, and we inspected some of the catches at their floating fish market. The lunches and dinner was included in the tour, a mix-and-match of various dishes that weren’t bad.
In the afternoon, we had the opportunity to take 2-person kayaks out onto the water. Solo travellers buddied up for the excursion. Jeff and I were soaked within minutes due to our splashy novice paddling, and we spotted numerous other kayaks paddling in circles or exploring way off in the distance. We made a little tour of the bay and passed through a passage through one of the islands.
The cabins were tiny and hot, and during the night I gasped for air and battled frantically with the jammed window to let some fresh air in, to no avail. In the morning I emerged on deck, to learn that others had been so hot that they slept outside under the stars. Sounds amazing – if only i’d thought of that! The boat was a great place to spend Ha Long Bay, especially once we lost sight of the rest of the fleet of tourist boats and we dropped anchor all alone.
Ha Long Bay was an absolutely amazing visit. There’s an element of cheesy tour stuff, but that is easily shrugged off, and the natural landscape makes it all worth it. We bought our ticket for $50, but it seems to depend on where you bought them from. Shop around for sure. One Canadian guy bought the same ticket for $80. Various shuttles and meals were all included in the tour package (including a poorly planned lunch stop upon our return – clearly a favour to the restaurant owner). For next time, i’d try the 3-day trip…