Halong Bay attractions are amongst the most exciting in the country, this was a day that I had been looking forward to, for ages. Our bus collected us from the hotel at around 8.00am. We met up at breakfast and enjoyed the usual Vietnamese coffee, scrambled eggs and banana pancakes. The weather was frustrating and stubbornly refusing to allow the sun to break through. As we headed out of the city on the full minibus, it only appeared to be getting worse. Visibility was not good at all, the temperatures remained low and the drizzle was both constant and irritating.
Half way to Halong Bay we made, what I now know to be the obligatory stop, at a souvenir shop. Today’s shopping extravaganza was provided by a stone merchants and artists’ workshop. If I was looking for a headstone or a giant statue of the Madonna to brighten up my garden, this would have been the very place. I was not.
We soon got under way though, and before long we were at the quayside just outside Halong City. We boarded a small motor boat, and this in turn delivered us to our home for the next two nights, Halong Glory Cruise II, and a quite splendid home it was too. A quick check-in and we were ready to enjoy our buffet lunch. Red bean soup was swiftly followed by a superb buffet.
We then boarded the small motor boat again to visit the first of our Halong Bay attractions, the fishermen’s village. These trips are really well put together, the fishermen’s village, whilst interesting, played second fiddle to the kayaking and rowing boat trips which, quite frankly are brilliant. The karst islands are more exciting than I imagined. They are astonishing, jutting imperiously out of the millpond still waters of the bay. The weather is, to be completely truthful, disappointing. It is cold and wet, and visibility is little more than 2 kilometers. We kayaked through an archway in a rock and found ourselves inside a completely enclosed cove, worthy of a hideout for any James Bond villain.
The rowing boats, for the less energetic amongst us, were actually coracles. The women rowing them are as strong as oxen and incredible adept at their job. They manoeuvre their craft with ease through spaces barely wider than the boats themselves. As we passed by the “primary and secondary school’ floating in the waters, the woman rowing our boat informed us that this was where she went to school. It is remarkable to think that this amazing woman has lived out her entire life in the shadow of these incredible limestone karst islands, in the same part of Halong Bay. Our guide, Kenny, showed us one particular rock, famous among Halong Bay attractions as it features on the back of the 200,000VND note.
When we got back to the cruise boat, it was time for a spring roll cookery demonstration. This entertaining half hour presentation was given in the dining room. Kenny, our entertaining guide, gave an introductory talk informing us about the background of spring rolls. The rice paper is made by cooking a rich cream made from rice starch and durum wheat starch. It is spread over a hot plate and cooked before being dried and cooked. Rabbit meat and even kangaroo meat is used in conjunction with mushrooms and other vegetables that are mixed with seasoning and other ingredients.
Our fellow passengers queued up to make their own rolls. The atmosphere onboard was one of great fun. Everyone mucked in and entered into the spirit of things. Al caused a ripple of amusement by making one in the shape of a samosa. After the cooking class we went up onto the upper deck for some happy hour drinks whilst the chef cooked up our spring rolls. These were then served with an excellent dipping sauce. The atmosphere on board is really good. As people get to know each other the inhibitions drop and conversation starts to become more vibrant. Loosened by a few drinks, the reserve of many disappeared to reveal a much more friendly and open group than had boarded the boat just a few short hours previously.
After the happy hour party we retired to the dining room for dinner. This was excellent. Fresh cooked vegetables, prawns in garlic, local fried crab, an amazing fish cooked in garlic ginger and spices, chicken in a superb sauce, fries and rice. The portions were plentiful and all served, as always, with grace and a friendly smile. The staff on these vessels are extremely good.
After dinner we chatted, played cards and enjoyed a few drinks before retiring reasonably early. I am proud to say that I maintained my record of being last to quit. I do like to experience every minute. I’ll sleep when I’m dead.
I can honestly say that I have never awoken to such an astonishing view. I have been lucky, I have travelled all over the world for a large part of my life, but to open one’s eyes and see the view from the window of a tour boat in Halong Bay, has to be one of life’s greatest experiences. This simple pleasure was my favourite among the many Halong Bay attractions. The boats, having huddled together for the night begin to stir at around 6.30 - 7.00 am. I rose early this morning at 6.00am as I wanted to see the part of the bay, that had been our home for the night, spring to life. As day broke and the eerie light crept over the bay, the pitch blackness of the night saw, the shadowy figures of the limestone karsts loom into view. Our boat was moored not one hundred yards from one of the giant monoliths.
The silence that had been our companion for the last 8 hours or more was broken as first one, then more engines sprang into life. But it remained extremely quiet. Every once in a while an engine would start up and one of the boats would begin to move off. The first to move were the smaller boats; the traders selling produce to the larger boats and the ones that transfer passengers from the large luxury cruisers to the islands on sightseeing trips. A few of these trips require an early start and the small boats appeared to be moving gently round the islands in search of their charges for the morning.
At 6.30 am the Tai Chi class started on the upper deck. The music system started playing relaxing Vietnamese traditional music and the teacher for the morning Ms Happy, began her exercises as the class, mainly the ladies, I have to say, went through the movements. Tai Chi is an extremely relaxing discipline, just watching it, relaxed me a treat. I was quite impressed by how many had made it to the 6.30am class. A dozen or so from a total number on board of 24 was a very good turnout. I can easily imagine that doing this ancient form of exercise every morning and evening would be very beneficial. The Vietnamese ladies that practice it as a way of life have an amazing poise and dignity about them. I see them in the parks around my now home town of Saigon, and that same superb posture, is always evident.
The peace and tranquility was shattered by a blast on the horn from a passing Paradise Cruise boat that cut a fine figure as it slipped between the moored cruisers in search of adventure for the day. I really could get used to this. I would be more than happy to spend a week or even more drifting in this glorious piece of nature’s handy work.
Well forty five minutes up on deck was a wonderful start to the day. It was then time to retire to the dining room to take breakfast. They are not shy with the food on these trips. As I had expected the breakfast was really good. As much coffee and orange juice as any man could reasonably expect, with cakes, eggs, bacon, fruit and toast. To be honest, give me enough good coffee and I’m generally good to go anyway.
Part of our group of passengers were leaving us on this morning, they were only having one night on board and were going to visit the caves before departing for their transport back to Hanoi. These passengers duly left the boat on what was to be their last excursion and we were collected by a day boat for our own adventures.
We set off on what was to be our craft for a few hours at about 8.30 am and sailed off immediately to visit the pearl farm, another of the well known Halong Bay attractions. Pearl culture is a good business these days for Vietnam and there are two major pearl farms here. Our guide for the day was none other than the morning Tai Chi instructor. Happy is a delightful girl, she certainly lived up to her name and her infectious humour made everyone else happy also. She showed us round the farm and the museum there and explained how the process is done. Then we saw a guy actually putting the Mother of Pearl membrane and the core into an oyster, ready for it to be left in the sea water for up to five years, to hopefully cultivate a pearl. Only 30% are successful and of them, only a small percentage are of significant quality to fetch the very high prices.
From here we moved on to a kayaking session. I decided against this, my old legs are not great at getting into and out of, small kayaks, so I stayed on board and photographed the others as they left. It was quite pleasant actually, I enjoyed having the boat to myself for a couple of hours. In this scenery, who wouldn’t? When they returned yet another really good lunch was served. The staff on these boats really are something special. They all muck in and help each other out. The captain on this day boat was also the chef and he rustled up a feast in no time at all.
Next it was off to the swimming beach, I don’t think so! The weather has been really quite cold since we arrived in Hanoi, there was no way anyone was getting me to strip down to my swimmers and jump in the cold water. Three brave souls did though, including I have to say, preserving the honour of Manchester, both Al and Leki. It was very much a case of straight in and straight out, though. A warm coffee soon sorted them out.
We hung around in this small beautiful bay for about an hour or so before heading back to our rendezvous with our mother craft, the Glory Cruise II. We had been joined by 16 new people, on their first day and as they finished their Spring Roll cooking class, we joined them up on deck for drinks and fun. It would soon be time for dinner again. What a hard life.
I really cannot emphasise the quality of the food on these tours. It has been as good as anywhere I have eaten in Vietnam. They are not shy with the portions and everyone ate their fill. Washed down with a good bottle of red it was, once again, extremely satisfying. We decided that a restful evening was in order as we needed to make an early start in the morning to visit the Sung Sot cave.
I hoped my legs would be up to the task, I was really looking forward to seeing the largest cave in the entire Halong Bay area. Up at 6.00am again it was time to relax on deck, catch the early morning fresh air and watch the Tai Chai again. Instructor, Happy, put the small but enthusiastic group through their paces once again.
I have never needed much sleep and it’s on trips like this that I get the benefit. I’m generally last to retire and first to get up. Apart from the staff that is. They are incredible, they don’t seem to have any time to sleep at all. 6.00am and they were busy cleaning and getting the dining room ready for breakfast. I was the first passenger to rise, but the boat was already a hive of industry. More great coffee followed along with eggs, bacon, cakes and the same trimmings as yesterday. As always the view from the dining room made everything that little bit special. The music that accompanies everything that we have done on this trip is a bit incongruous, but there is something charmingly Vietnamese about that as well.
Today was to be our last day in the bay and I was not going to miss a minute of it. This is such a special place, it was every bit as beautiful as I had hoped for. The lack of sunshine didn’t really diminish the experience. Seeing the karst islands shrouded in mist was a delightful way to view them. It as is though worth checking the weather forecasts before booking for this trip. Halong has its own weather system and if sunshine is of major importance to you, make sure you book at the right time of the year.
The Sun Sot Cave, king of Halong Bay attractions
We will be heading down to the beaches and cultural heritage of Danang and Hoi An tomorrow and the weather should improve significantly. But for this day there was still the adventure that I was most looking forward to. I have written about the Sung Sot cave many times, but this was to be my first visit. This is possibly the most famous of all Halong Bay attractions. The name translates as The Surprise Cave and it genuinely does live up to its reputation. It is the largest and the most interesting cave in the whole of Halong Bay. It is simply, breathtakingly beautiful. The largest chamber is 100 feet high and the stalagmites and stalactites are stunning. Growing at a rate of little more than one inch in one hundred years, it is not hard to grasp the enormous time this cave has been developing.
We arrived at a little after 8.00 am and began the climb up to the entrance. To traverse the full length of this magnificent cave involves going up and down 800 steps. It is not for the faint hearted. I have to admit it was a bit of a struggle at times for me, but my word, I am so glad I did it. The Vietnamese love the idea of symbolism and every rock formation is described as resembling a lion, a dragon, an elephant, a turtle or some other magical and mythical beast. The cave is lit to great effect, I was a bit worried about the lighting as I had seen some pictures where coloured lighting had been used. These are only a small part of the whole though. The general appearance is as close to natural light as it gets.
The cave was busy as all the tour boats turn up at the same time. Each telling their charges, that they have to go early as it gets too busy later on. I suspect though, that they all go early so they can get everyone back on board, ready to check out of the rooms, in order to give the cleaning staff time to get the boat ready for the next group of tourists who will be arriving at lunch time. The tour parties move through the cave in a pretty organised manner, moving at a pace, that gives one time to take in the breathtaking features. This was truly special among all the Halong Bay attractions.
The final part of the tour involves the hardest climb up to the exit, high above the bay. This rewards the travellers with superb views of the Bay and the cruise boats therein, below. Then there is the small matter of about 250 steps down the the jetty and the waiting small boats. We boarded ours and made our way back to the Glory Cruise Vessel, for the journey back to Halong City Harbour. It had been a very memorable morning, These Halong Bay attractions will certainly live in the memory for a long time to come.
The rain had stopped and the sky brightened up a fair bit at this point. I was hoping at this point, that this was a sign of things to come.
Another good meal on board our floating hotel and we were soon nearing our departure back at the quay at Halong City. The bus ride back to Hanoi was uneventful and our guide, Danny managed to find me a seat with a bit of extra leg room. Arriving back at the hotel, we left our passports with the clerk to facilitate check-in, and went over the road for a well earned beer. After check-in we had a quick shower and went in search of dinner. Food in Hanoi is not a problem, everywhere looks a bit shambolic, but my word, they know how to cook.
After today’s Halong Bay attractions, tomorrow would be another adventure as Hoi An lay waiting.