Monday, 8 October 2012

The Bay (Hanoi - Part 2)

Ha Long Bay is one of the seven natural wonders of the world and consists of over 2000 limestone islands all scattered about a beautifully picturesque bay. The bay is about a four hour drive outside of Hanoi and we were picked up at about 8am, we didn’t get to the bay until about 12:30am. It was a cramped mini-van journey through the Vietnamese countryside but it was pleasant enough. We aren’t really used to booking onto package tours but it’s really the only way you can ‘do’ Ha Long Bay. The tour companies have kind of a monopoly on the whole thing and they make it incredibly difficult to travel independently here. We were happy enough though and when we arrived at Ha Long City pier we were quickly put on a boat that took us to our ‘junk’ (a small cruise ship).

When we arrived we were given a welcome drink and we sat down with some other people on the tour, we talked and were eventually served some lunch before we checked into our cabins. Our cabin was pretty small but was just what we needed. We had a double bed and an ensuite bathroom which according to other people on the boat was more than what most had.

The boat was of medium size, there were about twelve cabins and there were three levels, the sun deck on the top which was for relaxing and admiring the views, the main deck below it which was where the restaurant and bar were and also where our room was, and then there was the below deck where most of the cabins were and where you could sit on the edge of the boat, and if the light was working (which it wasn’t) you can go squid fishing. The sea was a perfect crystal blue colour and it glistened in the sunlight, but you could tell that the water was polluted, there was litter floating around and a few patches of oil dotted here and there, I guess that’s what happens when you open these places up to so many tourists. The amount of boats in the bay was incomprehensible.

For the first leg of the trip we just looked out at the bay from the sun deck, watching the world go by. It was a pleasant experience and a stark contrast to the past three days which we had spent in the hustle and bustle of Hanoi. The first stop was a small fishing village, it was literally just small houses lined up along an elevated wooden platform. It was from here that we went kayaking around the bay. Natalie didn’t want to kayak for some obscure (fear of drowning) reason so I teamed up with a Austrian man that we had befriended on the boat. He was on holiday with his Thai wife; they both live in Pattaya, Thailand, he was a pretty smart guy and he had certainly been kayaking before. It was pretty easy to pick up and we probably kayaked further out into the bay than anyone else on our tour. We kayaked around caves and the limestone cliffs and got in the way of a few cruise ships whilst we were at it.

After we had kayaked we moved onto see some caves. Very different caves to what Natalie and I were used to, the cave we explored was huge. Unfortunately the tour guide was more interested in pointing out what the rocks looked like (a duck, an elephant) than actually telling us anything scientific or geological about the cave. All I can say is that it was huge, bigger than the larger cave we explored in Laos, but was much more prepared for tourists, even the darkest corners of this place were lit up with florescent lights. We were rushed through the cave in order (I suppose) to cram as many things into our tour as possible. There were spectacular views from the top of the cave across the whole bay and as usual everyone on the tour scuffled along to have their photographs taken. I don’t mind people having their photographs taken, don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to have the memory and it’s nice to show friends and family where you’ve been and what you’ve been doing. However, from what I’ve seen tourists are too busy taking photos that they’ve forgotten to actually make memories. There was a girl in the Ho Chi Minh museum in Hanoi who was standing next to exhibits and having her boyfriend take photographs of her, but she wouldn’t for one second even look at the exhibit itself, let alone read it. The same happened here in Ha Long Bay, people seemed to be looking into the camera lenses more than they were looking out into the bay. It’s absurd.

It was getting pretty late by now and the boat cruised along to a small beach beneath a viewpoint ready to catch the sunset. We hurried to the top of the cliff but unfortunately we were just a little late and didn’t quite catch the sun setting beneath the horizon, but the views from the top were still well worth the climb. We eventually wound up chilling out on the beach for a while before jumping back on the boat and sailing to our anchor point for the evening. I’m sorry if I’m not using correct boating terminology but anchor point makes sense to me, I’m sure you can figure it out.

That evening dinner was served and we sat on the sun deck for a while and watched the night roll on by, we were kind of disappointed that we couldn’t go squid fishing but it was nice to relax after our steep climb up the cliff. The next morning we cruised around the bay until it was time to jump back on the bus and head back to Hanoi. We could have spent two night on the boat and gone to Cat Ba island, which is a national park within the bay, but we didn’t want to spend the extra money and we felt like our one night tour gave us a great experience. The bay was amazing and despite the tour being more interested in pointing out similarities between rocks and animals we’re glad we splashed out to see it. There was more of this on the cruise back to Ha Long City where we were informed that two rocks that apparently look like two kissing chickens is the symbol of Ha Long Bay. What a joke, we thought. Apparently not, the rocks that look like chickens even appear on the 200,000 dong note, it seems like they really think those chickens are a big deal.

We got back to Hanoi in the early evening and took a walk around the lake before settling down for dinner. We went to a French restaurant in the middle of the old quarter whose overweight owner had been sat outside every single night and whenever we walked past would say ‘bonjour’ so despite its steep prices we gave it a shot. The food was delicious, I had some French sausages and old style potatoes which was a nice change to the Vietnamese food we had been eating so much of.

Our last day in Hanoi wasn’t really very interesting, we walked to the old cathedral in the middle of the old quarter and then we did some shopping before packing our things up and heading to the train station to catch our train to Hue. Hanoi train station is very interesting and they don’t make it very easy for tourists. There were no real signs that directed you where to go or what platform your train left from but after approaching some people that appeared to work there we eventually figured out where we needed to be. To get to our train we actually had to walk over some train tracks (that’s normal here). We entered our cabin and threw our bags down. This train was much better than the train we had got in Thailand, we actually had our own cabin which we shared with two other guys who were travelling solo, I only remember Andrew’s name, he had been travelling for just over a year mainly through Eastern Europe and was on his way back to Australia through South East Asia and the other guy was an English teacher in China doing a trip similar to ours before he headed back home to the UK. We slept pretty well on the train despite it occasionally coming to grinding halts, and we woke up at our destination in Hue. Travelling by sleeper train is the way to go when going long distance as it doesn’t even feel like you’ve been travelling anywhere and it saves you paying for a night in a guesthouse. We’re booked onto another train tomorrow but we’re in a six-berth cabin next time so we’ll see how that compares to the soft-sleeper four berth.

I’ll write about Hue and our current location Hoi An in detail when I post my next blog, but I did just want to write about something that happened to us just a few hours ago when we caught in a huge thunderstorm. We were lounging about on a beach when we saw the storm approaching across the islands in the distance. We didn’t think much of it, but we got up and started walking further down the beach, at this point the sun was still ablaze and we didn’t think the storm would actually hit for a while. However, it started to rain and before we knew it the heavens had opened. There was no shelter anywhere and we just had to walk in the rain and suck it up. We were drenched within seconds, the sun cream I had put on was pouring into my eyes making them itch beyond belief. We took a little shelter under a palm tree but it really didn’t work so we just had to start walking back towards the restaurants at the start of the beach, which were very far away. We seemed to be the only two idiots left on the beach as everyone else around were staying in resort hotels lined up along the coast. We were all alone getting drenched. It took us a good twenty minutes in the storm before we finally got some shelter and we were without any towels to get ourselves dry as the towel we had in our bag was wet from the storm. Luckily the lady who owned this particular restaurant took pity on us and gave us towels and a good seafood lunch. Moral of the story, always be prepared when travelling in the wet season as that beautiful sun can disappear in seconds. The waves were amazing during the storm and I took a little dip as the sea was warmer than the rain. So, not exactly the relaxing day on the beach we were hoping for but not bad either, it was a fun experience and we laughed about it the whole way through.

Vietnam has been a great place to travel, the cities are exciting and the countryside and the small towns are beautiful, relaxing and steeped in history. We’ve avoided scams, something that Vietnam is well renowned for, and we’re getting more and more confident as we travel on. We only have two more weeks left in this piping hot area of the world before we fly up to China and things will get cool again. I’ll be sure to blog as much as I can before then. Thank you for continuing to read these posts, they are often rushed and I apologize for not putting more effort in, I hope they still let you guys know that we’re having a great time and trying not to miss any opportunities. 


No comments:

Post a Comment