Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Ha Long Bay

Off the coast of north east Vietnam, the Ha Long Bay area contains around 3000 limestone islands that tower above the ocean.  It’s quite beautiful.  When we visited, the visibility was limited by fog, but that just cast the islands in a different kind of beauty, with the islands fading into distant shadows.
We took a three day/two night tour with Christina Cruise, arranged through the Vietnamese travel juggernaut, Sinh Tours (we had very good experience with them here and elsewhere).  We spent our first day and night on the boat above, which was no spring chicken, but was quite adequate to the task.  Next to us, in the photo below, is a curly haired gentleman (his name is Leo) you may see again—he really wasn’t trying to photo bomb our shots, he just kept ending up in them.  He and his wife were lovely people from New Zealand (as if there were any other kind of people there), and we were lucky to enjoy their company for most of the trip, as well as running into them later in our travels.  We’ve said this before, but meeting great people while traveling is one of our favorite things.
The tours work generally the same: you get picked up at your hotel in Hanoi, drive the 4 hours from Hanoi to Halong city, then transfer to your boat via a smaller boat (that’s what’s happening in this picture). Then you have lunch on board and set out for your two days onboard.
On the first day we explored some caves (pretty, but not photogenic), kayaked in the bay, and hiked to a lookout point on one of the islands.
You’ll notice that all the boats are white, which wasn’t always the case in Ha Long Bay. According to our guide the boats were traditionally wooden, which together with the brown sails are the traditional image of the Ha Long junk boat. In 2012 a decision was made that all licensed tour boats on Ha Long Bay must be painted white—a decision that caused universal outrage among the boat companies. They had reason to protest; there are steep costs associated with painting all the boats white, a color which must be repainted 3-4 times a year in caustic salt water, as well as the time lost by the companies while the boats are out of the water being repainted, especially during the high tourist season.  Additionally the boat companies were concerned about conveying an image inconsistent with what is traditional to Ha Long Bay, and confusing to tourists who have come specifically to see these magnificent boats in their original condition.  Needless to say, even a year after this decision was made, there is a lot of grumbling about it among the tour companies. We can see how this would be financially frustrating, as well as damaging to their business on a longer term basis.  It was one of the few complaints we heard about government in Vietnam, from a local.
Before dinner on the boat, we had a mini-class on rolling our own spring rolls.  It was fun, but not much of a class for those of us who were used to ordering roll-your-own, even in the US.  But our guide was funny, and it was nice to choose the exact ingredients and rations that went into your own roll.  (Yes, that’s Leo again!)
Sleeping on the boat was nice—the waters in the bay at night were very calm. The only “interesting” thing about the on board accommodations was the fact that there was a curtain between our room and our bathroom. A curtain. I don’t know about you, but we like to keep a little bit of mystery in our marriage, even after 13 years together. That mystery begins at the door to the bathroom. Let’s just say there was water running and singing going on in our room when necessary.
On day two, we returned to land for part of the day, including a hike up a steep trail composed of slick roots, rocks, and leaves, in a light rain.  Lana has had her fill of slick stairs, so she opted out.  David hiked a portion of the trail, but also turned back when traction became more luck than skill.
In the afternoon, we parted company from the rest of the group.  We’d opted to spend our second night in a bungalow on one of the secluded islands, instead of simply in a hotel Cat Ba Town.  We might have chosen differently in retrospect, but it certainly was interesting.  We were discovering that the tour offices sold various packages, and then the tour guides showed up in the morning, looked at all of the vouchers that just landed in their lap, and had to improvise a way to make everything work.  In our case, that meant getting on scooters—Lana behind our guide, and David behind a guy with a scooter that our guide rented—with all of our luggage (thank goodness it’s reasonably small)—and zipping through Cat Ba town, which is as hilly as any of the limestone islands, to the pier.  At this point, we bid our guide farewell, and stepped into a small motor boat with three gentleman who gave no appearance of understanding English or any interest in making us feel welcome or at ease.  They did understand motors, fortunately, as the one in our boat kept sputtering, and one of the men clambered down into the hold to work on it twice during our voyage. 
We had a lot to see (when we weren’t watching engine maintenance) as we motored through a floating fishing village on the way to our bungalow.  There isn’t a lot of habitable space on the islands, given their sheer rock faces, so in this area, the locals lash pontoons together, and form small floating communities, with gardens, dry good stores, homes, and lots and lots of fishing boats.
Away from the fishing village, the bay was very quiet and unpopulated.  We would see an occasional row boat or a water taxi, but mostly just watched islands take shape out of the fog, pass us, and then disappear back in the mist behind us.  Eventually, we saw signs of civilization, which was the little strand of bungalows where we’d spend the night:
The view from our porch was quite nice.  The interior was rustic.  Sort of a 1920s camp cabin feel.  Only it had later been electrified by a red neck with a roll of electrical tape.  The cord below is the wiring to a wall mounted fan in our room.  Keep in mind, this is 220V:
But it met our general requirements for a room: clean, dry, no obvious bugs or stench.  There was a mostly mended mosquito netting to drape over the bed, but it didn’t prevent us from getting chewed on by some kind of no see-ums. But it was fine.  We just kept our distance from the fixtures.  It was secluded, quiet, and there was a lot to look at outside the room that was simply beautiful.  So we were amused, but not at all unhappy.  We had a great afternoon left to our own devices, some passable dinner, and a good night’s sleep.
The next morning, we retraced our multi-mode travel of the day before, adding a few new modes to get to our accommodation for that night.  It reads a bit like a children’s book, actually:
It was a long day of travel, but it was so worth it to be able to see this “wonder of the world.”  We enjoyed our experience and it was just one of many things we saw in Vietnam that made it one of our favorite countries we’ve visited so far.