Ha Long Bay’s bad weather and affirming we are not suited to tours
How to visit Ha Long Bay was one of the hardest plans we had to craft out so far. The place is so touristy that it is over-saturated by promises and dodgy deals, which make the whole process quite unpleasant. After a lot of peaking into other people’s experiences and checking out the various options for visiting, we agreed that we are not after beaches or any of the “activities”, rather we just want to sit back and enjoy the bay while cruising on an as comfortable boat as we can find.
That option did not quite exist, unless we went with the charter boat kindly offered by Indochina Junk. At $1000 for two nights it was just a tiiiiny little bit over our budget, although in reality if we wanted to spend money on one of the 5 star boats, it would have been a great deal, because it would have cost about the same for all five of us to have our own private one.
After a humiliating amount of humming and head scratching, we went with the recommendation from the kind people at our hotel – Aclass Cruise – a mid range boat. Cost for all of us $525 for two nights on board, meals and activities included.
And we are off.
The fact that Ha Long Bay is probably Vietnam’s biggest tourist attraction cannot escape you as soon as you reach the town of Ha Long, where villagers have been uprooted to the side to open room for the flashy, suitable to western tastes set up that can be found there now. You will find little authentic experience there.
The harbor is like a busy bus station, buzzing with smoky engines that carry off and on sweaty tourists and their heavy luggage. There is very little charm in the whole process so far.
A small wooden boat, that has to be hotwired to start, takes us along the waters and through the jam of the harbour and delivers us to the main vessel, waiting patiently at suitable distance from the madness.
The boat is reasonably small, only 10 cabins or so, just as we wanted.
We got two cabins, as it didnt prove any cheaper to try to squeeze us into one, and they are quite comfortable with a rather inviting rain shower (those are always welcomed and a sure fire way to excite us).
I will lie if I dont admit to finding it a bit freaky that the room is practically at sea level, only separated by the vast water by a rather low railing.
The rest of the boat is ok, nothing awe inspiring, but we dont expect it to be either. We just want to sit back and look.
Well, some of us prefer to play chess, but we dont mention those in our world traveling memoirs.
We set off to take the first sights of the bay.
Having just gotten our eyes on the karsts, we are taken to the Sung Sot cave, also known as Surprising Cave or the biggest and best one that ‘keeps on surprising you’. That may be so, but we just want to keep on going, because going inside a cave at that moment was the last thing on our mind, and we get to cement our firm belief that we are just not suitable for organized travel. At ALL. Just a few hours into our journey and being told when to eat, where to go, what to do, where to take a picture, makes us want to jump in the water and go at it alone.
The cave, in fact, surprises us and turns out to be quite a good one.
But it is the water that is calling us.
Finally, we are back on the boat and sliding on the smooth waters.
I guess the views are simple – mostly limestone karsts that peak out from the salty waters of the South China sea – yet, they are… enchanting.
The hum of the engine slowly glides you forward and changes the landscape around and its best experienced at the front of the boat with a glass of wine and good company.
Followed by some swimming with the jelly fishes – some of them giant, mind you.
And a good rain, brought on by some of the darkest clouds I have seen so far on this trip, and I have seen many.
The girls get to try and catch some squid in the night with the charming young French-Swiss-Italian (can this combination be anything BUT charming?) we lure to our table and who became the kids favorite travel companion.
And so ends our first day on the bay.
The morning is misty and cloudy, almost too dreamlike bordering on unreal. It is hard to just accept the setting as normal, not part of some movie set you have ended up being an extra for.
After breakfast, a small boat takes us on a long ride, which fills our Ha Long batteries the way they should be.
Activities, shmaktivities, this is what we want.
Every few meters reveal a new landscape, a new combination of those ancient rocks carved through millions of years of history only they know and they look it – wise, heavy and wrinkled.
We reach the hub for our next activity – kayaking.
Small life vests? Of course not. So Mr.Blab stays back with the Dod.
Heavy manual labour is not quite what I would choose on a hot muggy day, but its quite nice to get close to the karsts and to see the floating structures, housing oyster farms around.
After lunch we head out to the next stop – Monkey Island – which doesnt even look nice from a far. Despite all the other boats going right to the sand to unload their captives, ours apparently cannot and we are required to get on the kayaks from its swaying sides. Looking at the difficulty the young couple have doing this exercise, I stay back with the Dod and the lady that has an injured knee.
The next 2 hours we spend docked at Cat Ba island, waiting for who knows what…lets just way this part was not fun and leave it at that.
As soon as we pick up the people from Monkey beach, the weather turns and we are presented with dramatic Ha Long Bay. Watching the strong rocks being overwhelmed by gray menacing clouds reflecting in the surface below is probably one of the most memorable experiences I will have from the trip.
All of us glued to the unfolding scene. stand at the front of the boat, waiting for the rain for as long as possible. It feels so powerful and beautiful, in the way only nature can deliver and none of us want to get inside in a hurry.
Within a few minutes we are sitting behind the closed doors and windows of the boat and the dramatic view is replaced by gray panorama. Just grey, or all that is able of sifting through the pouring rain outside.
Lightening follows. A gut wrenching thunder, reasonably away. The pounding on the boat intensifies. More lightening. My muscles tense. We are on a tiny little boat, under all these grand creations of nature and it feels just like that – ants in a stampede. BANG! We are getting closer to the action and I wonder why in the world are we heading there. Outside – gray. What does the captain see? Flash…BANG – BANG – BANG!. I carefully make a plan of swift escape of our broken in half by a lightening boat – life vests right here under the table, free from ties, easy to grab, ok…open that door, windows will be hard… I look at the girls who are chatting with charming French-Swiss-Italian and I feel so grateful for his charms, because they look comfortable.
Light fills the boat, Bang-a-di- BANG – A – BAAANG! deafening thunder crackles right on top of us and I feel how I am squeezing the Dod in my lap. Adrenalin fills my bloodstream along with the fear that is at peak levels now. Miss Fab is now petrified and joins us. I try to repeat to her my internal soothing dialog of how we are ok and the crew look relaxed and they know what they are doing. Seems to work enough to keep her reasonably calm.
This seems to go on forever, but eventually it eases off and we are back to the main boat. It feels like heaven to step on its stable wooden floors, where cold wine and fruits are awaiting us and it seems like we will make it after all.
We make our way to the designated sleeping area, which we share with a few other junks. I personally find that to be quite comforting, knowing that there are other souls around and if we are in trouble someone will know about it. Plus it makes the nights that much more beautiful.
Morning views for breakfast:
Floating village stop.
This little boy, no more than 5 years old, proves to be the highlight of this activity for me. Yet again, my western mind gets reminded of how capable children are when left to be so. Bobbing on his little boat barely lifting the paddles he makes his way through the water, somehow seeing through the overly big hat that is providing the only protection he can hide under.
No life vests, no anxious adults looking at his every move, I am envious of his freedom on behalf of my own children. And I am not that bad of a hovering mother.
This time I chose to be paddled around instead of the sweaty kayak and as soon as they hand me the umbrella I know I have made the right choice. Life is better with an umbrella, period.
Slowly, the last minutes of our time in Ha Long Bay drift into the past and we soak up as much as we can from the views as we make our way to the harbor.
It has been an amazing ride, no doubt.
If I had my way, we would be on a private boat for about a week, cruising the waters only to stop for a dip in the salty waters on one of the undisturbed beaches that hide between the karsts. Because we didnt need anything else. As usual, I think that all the touristy “add ons” are completely unnecessary and distract from what is probably the perfect setting to be in. Even with the jarring reality of organized travel grinding our independent traveling souls all the wrong way, Ha Long Bay overcomes it all and leaves its magnificent mark on us never the less.
So long, Ha Long, so long, Vietnam. It has been a pleasure.