I wasn’t really intrigued by Ha Long Bay’s beauty. Even when it was the toast of the town in 2008, I never thought of seeing it when I first went to Hanoi that year. Ha Long Bay, which literally means “descending dragon bay” is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that serves as Vietnam’s most popular crowd-drawer.
Even with its accolade as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, I wasn’t really interested in her. Maybe it has something to do with my love affair with El Nido. As I have previously blogged, I am so taken by El Nido’s dramatic limestone karsts and mesmerizing beaches that the thought of seeing Ha Long’s version of towering limestone karsts would mean cheating on El Nido.
A, however, was really keen on taking a Ha Long Bay cruise. I wasn’t really solved with the idea until Thuy, the Vietnamese lady we met at the Noi Bai International Airport on the night that we arrived in Hanoi, highly recommended that we see Ha Long Bay. And so, after budgeting my meager allowance and restructuring my Vietnam itinerary, I gave in.
We were to leave Hanoi at 8:00 am but I woke up really early because I wanted to see more of Old Quarter. Our walking tour the day before was not really enough to see much of the action in this side of Hanoi, so while A was still dozing it off in dreamland, I tried to rediscover Old Quarter.
At 6:00 am, Old Quarter was a picture of calmness, very far from the chaos that usually characterizes the place.Save for the side street food stalls which were slowly getting packed and some stores starting their operations, there wasn’t really much that was happening in the area. I walked around and got back to the hostel to take a quick shower before our 8:00 am trip to Ha Long City.
A and I didn’t have enough time to have breakfast so we decided to just eat our food on the coaster. Our accommodation came with free breakfast, we just had the same food that we ordered the day before. Earlier, while waiting for the coaster to arrive, A booked his flight to Ho Chi Minh City. There was a little misunderstanding between A and the receptionist whom he had talked about the booking the night before, so we had to hurry when the ride arrived at 8:15 am.
The coaster had to fetch other guests from different hotels, I think we had to stop four times before we made it to the highway. From Hanoi, we were told it’s still four hours to get to Ha Long City. Our guide, Hue, engaged us with her narratives of her country. After an hour or so, we had a stop at this place which was teeming with souvenir items.
This lady who’s working on an intricate wall decor got my attention.
It was still a long way to get to Vietnam’s famous bay and there wasn’t really an interesting scenery along the way. It seemed like this part of Vietnam is one of the country’s more developed areas, it’s lacking in character. I kept myself busy by computing my students’ grades on Roco, my iPad, while playing some games on the side.
After two hours from our stop over, Ha Long Bay’s silhouette started to appear on the horizon. They look like different things from afar, I got excited. When we finally got to Ha Long Bay’s jump-off point, I was surprised to find a really modern city. Skyscrapers are being built left and right, there’s no trace of the Vietnam I knew from my History books.
I was even more surprised to see hundreds, even thousands, of tourists at the port. Just when I thought that the volume of crowd that Palawan’s Underground River attracts is just way crazy, it actually pales in comparison with the large number of tourists who see Ha Long Bay. The crowd was just stupefying!
After our guide took care of our pass (worth 80,000 dong), our group was ushered into one of these boats. The descending dragon’s famous limestone karsts from afar looked appealing and intriguing at the same time.
It was 12:30 pm and I was already starving since I only had fresh fruit for breakfast. The tour, which cost us 850,000 dong each, promised a buffet lunch. In my mind, all buffet means “eat-all-you-can.” When we were given only one serving of each food, I couldn’t help but think of our Loboc Floating Restaurants in Bohol, where guests are served with an overflowing of an assortment of Filipino food.
I realized the “Happy Fiesta!” culture is uniquely Filipino, we just want to stuff our guests with food! Nevertheless, the dishes that were served to us were enticing, I particularly enjoyed the banh mi thit (pork roll).
We shared a table with a family from France. One of my frustrations as a traveler is that I am not really skilled when it comes to learning different languages (even local dialects). It is a gift that I don’t have.
A, on the other hand, is very good at it. He easily mimics other people’s “wang and access (it’s a private joke which, of course, refers to twang and accent).” At one point in Hanoi, I had to remind him to stop mimicking the Vietnamese accent unless he wants someone to just punch him in the face! 🙂
A took some French language classes in college so he had a grand time conversing with the family. I would butt in every now and then with my “merci” and my “oui” but that’s it. Good thing Ha Long’s limestone karsts were getting larger and more mesmerizing by the minute, I had the perfect excuse to leave our table and head to the roof deck.
All the boats that go on the tour have roof decks which are perfect for enjoying the view in Ha Long. Our first stop was at the Thien Cung Cave, which was some 4 kilometers away from the port. It seemed like all the tours make a stop here, the place was actually teeming with tourists of different kinds.
After climbing some steep steps, we finally got to the entrance of the cave. I was not really anticipating a swanky sight inside since I thought all caves look the same, but I was shocked to find the cave illuminated in different colors, like some magical light show had been put up for everyone’s amazement.
Lights of different colors highlight the most interesting stalactites and stalagmites inside, creating a visual feast like no other. We also found “Heaven’s Gate” here, so named because of the natural light coming from the cave’s crevices.
Before we left Thien Cung Cave, of course, I needed to have this picture. 😀
We continued with the tour. More limestone karsts made their appearance. While they were gigantic and towering, I found the limestone karsts to be not as dramatic as the ones we have in El Nido. They seemed so distant and cold. El Nido’s islands, on the other hand, appear to be conquerable, maybe because they are not as massive as the ones in Ha Long.
Nevertheless, we certainly did not run out of nature’s bounty in Ha Long. With about 1,600 islands and islets, that’s almost impossible to happen. Another engaging sight in Ha Long is the presence of a floating community. We had our next stop at a floating community that has its own elementary school, sari-sari stores, and some restaurants.
We were told our tour included a free kayak ride in case we’d want to explore the nearby village and lagoons. It would be A’s first time to go kayaking so he really wanted to give it a try. I was hesitant though because I didn’t want us to be the tour’s cause of delay in case we encounter some troubles kayaking around the area.
Another option was to ride one of the smaller boats but that would mean shelling out extra for the ride. We took the free kayak ride instead but we had to pay an additional $4 as an environmental feel since we decided to also go inside one of the lagoons.
Since it was A’s first time to try kayaking, we actually had troubles coordinating our paddling movement. The short-tempered version of myself almost got the better of me, but I have to give credit to my “aging” self for successfully managing the situation.
It was low tide already when we finished our tour around the village, we found out our boat had been docked somewhere else because the water was getting shallower. Together with the rest of our group and our guide Hue, we rode one of the smaller boats to get to where our boat was.
We continued on the tour. By this time, the sun was already starting to go down, I enjoyed the time spent on the roof deck. The sun wasn’t punishing and the calm breeze was just relaxing. With the sun behind them, Ha Long’s natural scenery started to form gripping silhouettes.
We also spent the rest of the ride back to the port talking to other travelers. We met two very young journalists from Malaysia who were spending the night on one of Ha Long’s islands, as well as an old couple from the Netherlands who were touring Vietnam for the first time.
Our favorite acquaintance that day, no doubt, was Lolo, a former US Navy man who was based in Subic here in the Philippines in the 70’s. When he learned we are from the Philippines, he instantly bonded with us, even jokingly berating us that we should shape up so we can win the fight over the Spratlys Islands.
Lolo’s already 78 years old but his zest for life is just amazing! Here’s Lolo with A and our guide Hue.
I would have wanted to stay longer to witness the famous Vietnam sun disappear from the horizon, but we had to get back to Hanoi before 9:00 pm since A had a 10:30 pm flight to Ho Chi Minh.
I took one last snapshot of Ha Long’s sunset before I finally boarded our coaster. We left for Hanoi a little before 6:00 pm.
We were back at our hostel before 9:00 pm. A just grabbed a burger and hurriedly left for the airport. My train ride to Hue, a quaint city in Central Vietnam, was at 11:00 pm and because it’s just a short xe om (motorcycle taxi) ride to the train station, I had enough time to scour Old Quarter for some dinner.
Again, Old Quarter was a picture of chaos with all the street food and drink stalls abuzz with customers. Since I was already really hungry, I “dined” in one of the busiest food stalls that I spotted and just ordered the same food I saw on someone else’s table nearby.
I had corn rice, a beef meal which name I totally forgot, and this egg dish which looked like scrambled egg only that it tasted differently. I paid 80,000 dong for my dinner.
I took a quick shower back at the hostel, which was celebrating its second anniversary. Upon realizing that I still had enough time to do some quick research on Hue online, I stayed at the hostel’s lobby which was not really a good decision because I was spotted by a group of Australian ladies who were quite drunk already from all the hostel’s merrymaking.
They dragged me into the dance floor and gave me some drinks which I did not refuse for fear of appearing as an asshole. I guess I had a drink too many that I realized I was actually nursing a headache when I finally got to my bunk bed inside the train.
I was actually a little tipsy when I got to the train station that I didn’t mind anymore when some random guy just appeared from my back, got my backpack, and ushered me hurriedly to my coach. He asked for some money but because I honestly didn’t have enough dong anymore, he angrily walked out on me. I didn’t mind. I was tipsy and I just really wanted to hit the bed.
The Ha Long Bay day tour was not really enough to capture and understand the bay’s beauty but it was not bad especially since we were on a tight schedule and budget. I would suggest though that if you really like to see Ha Long’s charm and experience why it is Vietnam’s most frequented tourist spot, I suggest you go on a 3 day/2 night cruise.
Love and light, everyone. Go, juanderlust! 😀
- All photographs, except the second collage and that of Juanderkid doing an Oblation, were taken with a Canon 550d. Other pictures were taken with a Sony RX100 digital camera.