Monday, November 22, 2010

Dragons sleep here


Halong Bay the land of the sleeping dragon. What an amazing place. Despite the grey skies I was absolutely in love with the place. The money I spent there was definitely fully worth it.

Now when we were planning to head to Vietnam, Halong Bay was on my must visit list coz I just wanted a relaxing time and plus I’ve heard of its beauty and seen photos. The problem was there was so many horror stories about trips there. Around 600 ships offer the “same” packaged tours to live on board a ship for a night or two and see the surrounding views. The whole harbour is filled with similar looking junks, so how was one going to find a trust worthy tour agent given how much I hate tour companies?

halong bay

This was also one of the trips I had the least amount of time to research, the last few days being the only time I had to properly find info but in that time I realised the only way I was going to get a good trip was to:

  1. Book a tour with a company that owns the ship
  2. Pay nearly double the usual rate
  3. Meet the tour agents
  4. Ask as many questions possible
Halong bay

I pretty much knew who I was leaning towards but to give us an idea and since we were staying at the Old Quarters, we walked into a few tour companies and came out feeling pretty turned off. The thing is, they recite what they’ve probably memorised and sit there with a dull face staring back at you and offer no other info.

halong bay

The office of the tour we picked wasn’t in the main area so we took a cab towards the place and walked in to find the loveliest chap who could actually speak English. We liked him so much we just sat there chatting with him for a while and obviously booked them for US 215 per person for a 3 days 2 night trip.

The usual prices were going between US 100 to less and there was no way I was going to live on a ship in the middle of the ocean and put myself at risk coz I was stingy to spend. I’m a practical flashpacker, I like a tad bit comfort where safety is my top priority.

We couldn’t book their own boat as theirs was undergoing service (woohoo they serviced their ships) so they got us on their sister companies ship. He gave us a run through of the services, the ship and the itinerary. He assured us we could contact him asap if we needed and gave us his contacts and such.


He was such a charming guy and told us about his travels to Malaysia and his experience there. After I paid him I casually asked him about the weather there this time around and he tells me

“oh by the way its typhoon season! “

I was like what!! The funny thing is this is peak season in Vietnam! I was determined to go so we left and waited for the day to come.

On Monday they arrived sharp on time to pick us up in one of those nice looking but super small seat space vans. Lets’ just say most of us were suffering the my-legs-are-too-long syndrome. Not fun for such a longgg journey – it takes about 3 hours to get to Halong Bay from Hanoi. Good thing the view is amazing, miles of golden paddy fields, too bad we couldn’t stop.


We did stop half way at a pretty pricey handicraft shop. Everything was expensive but for the traditional dresses. You could order one or buy from the racks at the same price and collect them on your way back. Since I had gotten one in Hanoi which was much more expensive, I thought what the heck and decided to get 2 tailormade dresses there. And so began the impossible task of choosing materials as well as to convince them I knew what I wanted ;p

One of the tops prices was different from the one I had seen (a misprint) so I refused to buy it. Anyway when I went back they had both ready for me to wear. I think they figured my size could be worn by all and just got it done. I just prefer getting tailor made clothes trust me it’s easier to shop across Asia than in Malaysia ;p
Superb marketing tactic since I ended up buying the other piece as well.

Halong bay

Back to our story we reached Halong Bay port just before 12 and were made to wait before we were pointed towards our captain who was taking us to our ship. We drove down the blue waters towards the ship and what a sight! I must say the ship looked stunning from the outside, I was hoping fingers crossed it would look great from the inside as well.

Our ship had an interesting doorway; one of the floors had a door that opened straight into the ocean. It ended up being my favourite place to hang out and catch a fish or two ;p

We were ushered into the dining area and that was impressive as well. It opened into a small balcony overlooking the ocean and wow the winds were strong. While we waited for the second boat of passengers to arrive we enjoyed our welcome drinks and chat up the bartender and hostess.

The bartender turned out to be a cheeky guy who kept teasing me while the hostess was impeccable and lovely throughout our stay.

halong bay

halong bay halong bay 

The guide arrived with the second boat passengers and proceeded to give us info on our day ahead as well as handover the keys. The rooms were lovely and we had such a beautiful view given we were on the ground floor that opens into the sea. The only problem with the bathroom was there’s a huge window in the shower and half of the shower wall is covered by a textured glass wall. I also checked for life jackets! Hurray we had them!

halong bay halong bay

Given how easy it was to get connected in Vietnam, even in the fields of Sapa, the first thing I did was check to see if there was an internet connection on board. Hehe alas there wasn’t.

Halong bay

The Singapore gal who was also on tour with us was as gobsmacked as I was. We sat down for lunch and were perplexed to see our first dish. A wholly intact crab had been placed in front of us and we were wondering how was one going to open this one up. Our hostess came to our rescue and proceeded to break them up for us. Yeah talk about service!

halong bay halong bay

Food was probably one of the best I’ve had on the trip so far and they took note of the fact that I didn’t eat beef and only served it twice after I mentioned it. Our cheeky bartender would tease me over it every now and then ;p

Now while everything is inclusive in the bill, you will need to pay for your own drinks throughout the journey and you could rake up a huge bill given the drinks are delivered everywhere for you. By the way lunch started while the boat was making a trip across the whole stretch of the bay, what an amazing sight.

halong bay halong bay halong bay halong bay 

Anyway we got ready to go the Amazing caves which were a beautiful set of caves in one of the larger limestone formations around the bay. It also had an amazing view of the area. Though for the life of me I couldn’t imagine a single of the animals the guide pointed out to us besides the obvious looking turtle on the floor of one of the caves.

halong bay halong bay 

We headed back to our ship and the guide asked us if we wanted to swim in the open sea. One of the Australians decided they wanted to jump off the second story of the ship and he was followed by the dutch guy. I asked the guide a few questions before jumping into the water myself. I was a bit afraid of becoming dinner for a lonesome shark ;p since I can’t swim and this was the middle of the ocean which he claimed was only 5 -7 metres deep, I got him to bring out a floater. He got one and tied it to the boat so I could jump in without being afraid, though I was kinda freaked out. Ohh the water was pretty warm, though the weather was cold and chilly.

 halong bay halong bay halong bay halong bay halong bay Jumping jacks ;p 

As the sun started setting, I got out of the water and got ready for dinner.

halong bay halong bay halong bay 

Dinner was just absolutely stunning! Yes stunning and delicious too. The presentation was artisticly done with carrot roses, tomato swans and prawn bouquets and such. They tasted amazing too. At one point they switched of the lights to bring in a fiery lit pineapple with Vietnams signature snack – spring rolls.

halong bay halong bay halong bay halong bay halong bay halong bay halong bay

Those were the best spring rolls I’ve ever eaten in Vietnam. Lip smackingly delicious.

After dinner, the guide enticed us to a spot of squid fishing. He set up a light that was shown into the ocean while we sat down waiting for something to bite. Now I took hold of the net and decided to try my luck, what do you know I catch a tiny long fish that had jumping tendencies. Sometime later I catch a baby squid/ octopus. At first we thought it was just a leaf but when it started squirting ink everyone got excited. We took it out to have a look before we released it back.

Then I decided to jingle the fishing rod and before you know it I attract a small crab which I promptly caught. Everyone gave me a – what the heck look as the more seasoned fishing guy (the aussie) took it out from the net so I could get a photo ;p after a while we released him back and bugger decides to swim around us! 

halong bay

Should have caught him again and sent him to the kitchen for evening snacks!

After sometime everyone decided to head to the roof veranda and chill out. We spent the evening yakking away and exchanging travel stories. It was just so relaxing to laze on the deck chairs and enjoy the chilly cold weather. There I was decked in a shawl at a beach holiday! Lol totally a first time for me I did love it though. Oh the winds are super strong, it even pushed down a metal bin on one of the floors.

That’s when we realised things getting dark around us. So the rumours were through pay less and they switched off the lights at night! So now you know why you pay more, for good food, service and electricity!
Breakfast was at an ungodly hour of 7.30. That’s the one thing I didn’t like about the whole cruise thing, the schedules! I know it makes their life easier for them but I’m on holiday – I’d like to sleep in ;p

halong bay

I woke up and headed for breakfast, we had a whole day to explore the place. As there were 2 different groups one leaving that morning and us staying another night, we had different activities to do. So while we waited for our smaller boat to arrive, I lounged up on the deck with a book in hand.

halong bay

The boat finally picked us up together with another bunch of people from another boat. Now this is where the service got a bit downgraded. We spent the day on a smaller day boat with a deck but the overall look and feel was unpolished. The boats wood work was rough to the skin and I ended up getting scratches.

En route

But still it took us around the bay and gave us some amazing views. We reached our kayaking spot and got into the kayak boats. Now I’ve never kayaked before so let’s just say the learning experience wasn’t fun and I was just waiting to get out of the boat.

Red halong bay 

Anyway we kayaked under limestone caves into open lagunas which will be inaccessible once the tide rises. It was pretty beautiful but that’s just an understatement of the whole bay.

Once done, I was trying to get out of the kayak but ended up cutting myself – just one of the many incidents that happened during this trip. Like I said the trip was nice but with a lot of ups and downs.

halong bay halong bay 

Lunch was served sometime later and while it wasn’t bad it wasn’t as good as what we had on our own boat. Naturally we were all missing our meals on the ship; p

The boat then drove us to an island for a swim and for a view of the place. I was dying to get into the water and opted out of the climb. Most of them opted out of swimming, the water was warm and lovely and the beach was nice and sandy. But then I could waddle and swim anywhere ;p

We got back to the boat and I was freezing away. Yes I told you its freezing there. Most of the westerners were disappointed as they wanted to get tans!

We got back to the boat to find the boat empty; we were expecting to see some newcomers. As I was taking my shower as discreetly as possible (remember the windows!) I realised the boat was rocking which was unusual. The boat hadn’t rocked before this.

halong bay

Anyway they popped in just as I was lingering at my favourite spot at the doorway to the water. Well I was trying to get a photo of myself there but since I tend to attract people. A mother and daughter boat shop turned up at our door and the gal decided to hang on to me and try to get me to buy her shells. I wasn’t in a shopping mood so I said no and just talked to her. Kid wanted my earrings! You would be surprised how many people wanted my cheapo but nice looking earrings.

halong bay halong bay halong bay halong bay

Being Indian and slightly superstitious, I declined the offers to exchange them with even silver earrings! ;p  I mean given how popular I was there, I wonder why they wanted my earrings.

halong bay halong bay 
I headed up to the deck work on my editing. Yes I worked throughout the trip to meet deadlines but since the nights were pretty quiet it gave me something to do. But this was probably the best way to work what a view man!

I finished in time for dinner as curious little children from the newcomer families walked around me wondering what I was doing!

Dinner was lovely but not as beautiful as the night before. We headed to bed early as everyone was tired plus the boat was still rocking. Surprisingly the doorway to the ocean was closed. I had noticed they rarely closed the doors even late at night just the night before. I guess with all the rocking, they didn’t want to freak us out with a view of the waters.

halong bay 

The next morning breakfast was as usual at 7.30am. I had woken up and immediately peaked out to shoot some photos. I opted out of morning kayaking coz I really wanted to have a peaceful last day on the boat! Peace is sometimes underrated but you must do what’s best for you. We were to check out by 9.30 in the morning so that the cleaners can clean up for the next group. We were of course welcome to order more drinks and lounge around before lunch. 

halong bay 

I knew I was gonna miss my favourite deck chairs on the top with the amazing sight. Though we had been anchored in the same spot, I seriously loved being there. So with a heavy heart we went through our lunch. As the boat cruised back to the harbour, I said a goodbye and hoped I’d be back soon. ;p

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Suresh Nair said...

Great Photography & Narration! Looks like you are Tourism Vietnam's Ambassador. Good Job!

gina said...

USD215?? Too expensive already! I paid USD189 for 5 days and 4 nights. Of coz, that doesn't include Sapa. I just need to top up USD10 to stay on the junk at Halong Bay overnight, and we got the entire junk to ourselves! Anyway, as long as you enjoy your trip lah, dear. :D

Visithra said...

suresh: heheh thanks i did enjoy vietnam very much

gina : i think it was worth itla - the food was really good - super comfy rooms n everything - posh n it was quite a lovely boat - we stopped by one of the cheaper boats n it was way different than ours

ashok said...

Have a great new year visit...

Visithra said...

thanks ashok - u too ;)