A chronicle of Alison and Ron's trip around the world in 2009-2010.

"Not all those who wander are lost"
- Tolkien

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The sheer beauty of Halong Bay

Since we were almost certainly cutting our trip short so Ron could deal with his condo, we wanted to go out with a bang. To aid and abed this idea, my Dad had given us money to get scuba certification for Christmas, which seemed a waste at this point. So we re-appropriated the funds and settled on a luxury cruise around Halong Bay as our swan song of the trip. Thanks Dad!! To start our jet setting, we took a flight to Hanoi instead of the horrid overnight bus, which made us feel like movie stars right off the bat. The next morning, we took a shuttle bus 3 hours to the private dock at Bai Chay where we were greeted with warm hand towels and a fruity beverage.

You can take any number of tours on Halong Bay, from a few hours to a few days, from $25 to over $500 a person. We took the 3-day cruise on Handspan Indochina Sails which is one of the luxury lines, for $281/person. The boat, I mean Chinese junk, had only 16 rooms but less than half were full. It exuded romance and for us was a highly indulgent affair, so much so that I had those chills that whispered, “So, this is how the other class lives.”

Our wooden room was cozy at about eight square feet but the dominating king-sized pillow top bed had a down comforter (down! comforter!) and was stuffed a mile high with pillows. “Yay!” I screamed in glee internally to myself as I threw off all the unnecessary and pompous bed toppings, “to have the luxury of being annoyed at throw pillows!”

The bathroom was all marble granite and sparkling glass, and reminded me of our suite in Goa. Too good to be true, almost to good to use. Certainly interesting to use on the high seas, swaying and sloshing around on slippery floors. But the piece de resistance was the giant picture windows that looked out onto the magnificent bay floating slowly past. It was so beautiful we would just sit and stare in reverence. We couldn’t bear to close the curtains, unless absolutely necessary, lest we missed a split second of the majesty.

Nothing could be more perfect, and then of course, I started to come down with a cold. What ill timing for the finale of our trip! But I wasn’t going to let it slow me down. I knocked back a shot of Jack Daniel’s and leapt off the hull of the ship 12 feet into the frigid water. That should either wake me up or kill me, I thought. I put all my money, what meager scraps are left, on the former.

We had lunch in the large teak dining room on the second floor of the ship. Our table, for the remainder of the voyage, was in the corner along a long stretch of windows. Lunches were generally a five course set-menu of various seafood and meat dishes, some more successful than others, all far more fancy than our habitual fare. Needless to say, we were delighted with everything, even something as banal as a radish rose.

The first activity on the itinerary was a stop at Ti Top island situated 7-8 kilometers southeast of Bai Chay. There we could sun and swim on the crescent moon shaped beach and hike the 427 stone steps to a pagoda-style rotunda. The hike up left me light-headed and clammy but the 360 degree view of the surrounding bay sprinkled with thousands of limestone islets jutting out of the water was spectacular. Legends say that the islands were created by a great dragon, hence the name of Halong Bay translating into, “where the dragon descends in the sea”.

Our first afternoon we went sea kayaking in a doubles kayak. It was a pleasant sunny day to be out on the emerald green water. We paddled through the Luon Bo cave, the water eroding a natural granite archway into a secluded inlet. I love being inches above the water with the peace of nature all around you. Especially when you pull up your oars and glide along in perfect bliss.

With not a moment to waste, we were back on board for a quick shower and change of clothes so we could be ready for dinner. I can get used to this buffet of food at regularly scheduled intervals. Did some say buffet? Oh yea. Every night for dinner was a buffet! Nothing excites me more than to have a sumptuous feast ready for the picking. I can get a half dozen spring rolls with extra dipping sauce, fall-off-the-bone pork spare ribs, steamed vegetable medley (I actually squeaked when I saw fresh broccoli), and jumbo shrimp cocktail. And then have a repeat of all my favorites. Oh joy! (I can always buy bigger clothes when I return home, right?)

I got the best nights sleep aboard the boat from the gentle lull of the waves. Fascinating especially to me, I was up early and on deck at Tae Kwon Do before breakfast. The svelte instructor tried to teach us the slow deliberate movements but it was hard to follow. At times we would be turned around and she would be behind us. And then we would be perched on one foot in a crane position, which would be hard enough if the rocking ship underfoot was actual land. Half of us would stumble over in giggles. What do you expect at 7am in the morning?

We visited the Sung Sot or “Surprise Cave” that was discovered in 1901 by French explorers. Impressively grand at 10,000 square meters with thousands of well-lit stalagmites and stalagmites.

Some in interesting shapes and configurations. This, the tour guide told us, was a big cannon. Mmm hmm, sure. Maybe in your country, buddy.

We visited Cua Van, a working fishing village, that was the definition of remote. Not a Walmart in sight. Instead, the mini-mart would paddle to you where mother and enterprising children would sell you Oreos and Pringles (marked up 300%) from their family boat.

Surprisingly, they did have electricity (from generators I presume) to operate radios, tv’s and lights in their floating houses. There are 176 floating households and even a floating school, buoyed by empty drums. Everyone gets around by boat, children learn to swim before they learn to walk, and generation after generation of fisherman cultivate the waters. I’m sure it’s not an easy life, but you couldn’t paint a better view from your office window.

We went kayaking again and realized that some couples should just not kayak with each other. This was our third attempt, and as always, it ended with a fight. We couldn’t paddle in time together so we would knock oars. We also couldn't decide who was steering so we would run too close to the shoreline or into other boats. It was almost comical how we would veer back and forth, overcompensating every turn until we were pointed in the completely wrong direction. We bickered the entire time. I think we both pledged to stay on dry ground from now on, at the very least, to spare our relationship.

The remainder of the evening, we sipped our smuggled whiskey up on deck, watching the sun set in orange wisps behind the granite islets. Ah, this is the life.

Before we knew it, we were sailing back. Like the rest of our trip, it went by way too fast. The time on Indochina Sails was an unexpected highlight of the entire trip. So, if you are looking for an unconventional vacation idea, why not take a trip to Hanoi, a romantic cruise on Halong Bay, and (what I hear is) a fascinating cultural jaunt to the tribal villages in Sapa.


corina April 6, 2010 at 3:31 AM  

looks fantastic! now i'm double-y sorry we didn't make it up north...next time right?

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