We woke up super early this morning but apparently not early enough. As we were getting ready we were told that our ride was there. But before that we had the breakfast buffet, which was smaller but the staff at this hotel were extremely attentive, more so than basically any hotel I’ve ever been to (that I can remember).
On our way out of the city it started to rain. And I just wanted to mention how lucky we were weather wise. We were in Siem Reap during the rainy season but only got drenched once (though it rained multiple times every day we were there). We were in Hoi An and Hue during the rainy season and never got wet. We showed up in Ninh Binh in the rain with a forecast of rain all day both days we were there and we didn’t get wet. And now, when it rained in the north, we were in a van. We were phenomenally lucky with the rain given how little it rained relative to the time of year (in Cambodia and the centre of Vietnam) and given how the rain usually came either while we were traveling or while we were sleeping or eating. And I must say that I have been phenomenally lucky throughout my life when it comes to rain and travel. (Though I have never traveled to a place during the rainy season before.) Anyway…
When we got to Ha Long, we were surprised to see both a ferris wheel on top of a hill and a massive (two storey!) gondola (though it doesn’t go very far). I assume these are for those who cannot afford a cruise.
Everything at the dock was very organized, they took our luggage, put our room numbers on it and took it away from us and then we sat down in reception. Jenn made the mistake of trying the coffee and I believe it was the worst or second worst coffee she tried all trip. (It was sitting there in a pot for who knows how long.)
There were 14 of us for a boat that could hold 40 or so. Everywhere we had read that Ha Long Bay cruises were extremely busy, and October is “high season” for the area because it’s not as hot as the summer and not as cold as the winter.
We took a very brief ferry to the back of the boat and boarded it. Everywhere we read “you get what you paid for” and it was pretty clear immediately. (We paid a lot for this.) The boat is extremely nice but very clearly old and used. We would see numerous boats throughout the cruise, only a few of which were bigger, but many of which looked it rougher shape. (Or were so small as you were wondering what could possibly be inside given the number of people on the deck.)
As we headed out, we were treated to a large lunch. Both Jenn and I had low expectations for the food but, as I said, you get what you pay for. The food, with maybe one or two exceptions, was exceptional. Though more French Vietnamese – or flat out French – than Vietnamese most of the time, the food was some of the best we ate on the entire trip. And there was so much of it we never finished everything they brought us. (Each meal was three courses, but the middle course had so many dishes as to overwhelm basically anyone.)
Eating the food, you had to stop yourself and look out the window to see the other-wordly scenery passing by. After lunch, we went up top.
The area known as Ha Long Bay is actually at least three bays. Jenn booked our cruise for one of the less famous bays, Bai Tu Long, and it was evident from the start. As you can see from the picture above, there were very few other boats on our initial cruise to the bay.
After awhile we arrived at a cave, and we did so before most other ships (though there cruise ships parked near by). Sailing to a less famous bay meant we missed out on the most famous caves and beaches but it’s hard to understand why you’re supposed to see one specific cave or beach in a place with thousands of each. Tourism is tightly controlled in this area so the providers have very limited choices as to where to send tourists.
I have been in many caves in my life and this wasn’t particularly impressive to me, though it was impressive to some other people on our cruise. It was also kind of crowded, but nowhere near as crowded as a cave in Ha Long would be or as it would be a few moments after we got out when more cruises showed up.
After the cave, we went down to a beach. On my way down, a short Chinese woman ahead of me started yelling at everyone else on her tour, both the people coming up to the cave and other people I couldn’t see. This woman apparently had never been in awe of nature or, if she was, decided that the only way to appreciate the beauty of nature was to yell at everyone she knew.
We couldn’t swim at this particular beach due to jellyfish. Apparently someone had very recently been stung. I am very familiar with the dangers of jellyfish so I took this seriously.
I took an absolute ton of pictures of the surrounding karsks, both on and off the boat, a few of which turned out decently. But I won’t bore you with them.
After the cave, we cruised to a different spot in the bay. At this point we got into open kayaks and paddled around an island. On our way back to the boat the sun was setting. I have never kayaked through islands into a sunset before. It was among the most beautiful experiences of my life. (I did not bring my camera because I was in an open kayak with someone who had never been in a kayak before.) It was one of those moments when the beauty of the world is almost overwhelming. Now it feels so fleeting but in the moment, it was something.
We returned to the boat and showered. We then headed up for the “sunset party” though we had basically missed the sunset, because if the sun sets behind a karsk it obviously happens a lot earlier than if it happens on the horizon. On the top deck we were familiarzed once again with the strange Vietnamese concept of happy hour, which often has 3 for 2 specials, instead of 2 for 1. That was true on our boat. We passed this night but would indulge the next.
Everyone came up so there were 20 or so of us plus crew. It remained remarkably uncrowded and we once again felt extremely lucky that we somehow managed to book a cruise in the most popular tourist destination in Vietnam which was somehow half full.
We went down for dinner and had another excellent meal, including banana leaf-wrapped fish that was exquisite. (The food was good but the soup and the seafood was the best.)
After dinner I attempted to squid fish but only managed to see a squid briefly. Basically every boat in the area is trying to do this at the same time and the guy running the fishing said they have only ever caught 1 squid. So I didn’t feel very bad.
We fell asleep ridiculously early, I guess because of the early start time this morning and the kayaking.