A World Heritage Site (UNESCO)
According to the UNESCO web site, “Ha Long Bay, located in the Gulf of Tonkin, within Quang Ninh Province, in the northeast of Vietnam, is 165 km from the capital of Ha Noi. Covering an area of 43,400 hectares and including over 1600 islands and islets, most of which are uninhabitated and unaffected by humans, it forms a spectacular seascape of limestone pillars.” http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/672
The Cruise – 3 Days (or is it 2 Days?)
Colleen negotiated her best price for a 2 night / three day cruise through the Hanoian Hotel. This included travel by private van (we shared with one other couple), all meals, kayaking, two rooms (each with a balcony) and touring around. The price was $165USD for 4 adults and 25% reduction for Ben. That is 3.7 million Dong or $204CAD. Since drinks were not included we bought 12L of water and 14 beer for $14.60CAD and brought it on board. (That beer and water cost 266,000 Dong and was 11,000 Dong more than we paid for dinner!).
At 07:30 the van showed up and we were on our way (half an hour early). We left the hotel and faced the traffic of Hanoi. It was raining and people were still riding motorcycles. At any given moment I couldn’t really tell where we were because the road signs are not terribly clear. We passed through beautiful little towns with construction everywhere.
We stopped at the half-way point which conveniently had bathrooms and a gift shop the size of Walmart. Marble, ironwood, pearls, silk paintings, clothes, coffee, western foods and a sea of people weaving silk thread into paintings. The prices were insane (like even western insane) so we purchased nothing.
At the port we were greeted with a glass of iced tea and confirmed for our 2 night cruise. We waited for the Huong Hai Junk Boat to arrive and then were quickly whisked out in a day cruiser junk boat. Onboard, we had a brief introduction to the boat and staff and a safety briefing. This was followed by a chance to unwind in our room and a look about the ship.
Huong Hai Junk Boat
The first activity on our itinerary was a visit to the Thien Cahn Son Cave which was reached by over a hundred steps leading into a small cave. The cave had great examples of stalactites and stalagmites including ones just forming.
The next activity was kayaking. We teamed up two to a boat. It was a 45 minute tour and included some very panoramic scenes. Ben did an awesome job paddling for the first time. We saw huge jellyfish and were able to get close up to the rocky limestone formations.
Lounging on Deck
We had some free time to enjoy the view and take some photos after the kayaking.
Cooking Class – Fried Spring Rolls
In the evening we attended a cooking class and mastered fried spring rolls. We learned that the rice wraps we buy in Canada are Southern Vietnamese and are thicker. They take about 5 to 7 mins soaked in cool water to be pliable. In the north, they use thinner wraps which are just laid on a wet towel for 10 to 20 seconds. The chili, coriander and garlic in the dipping sauce made this a favourite for everyone.
The spring rolls were a great appetizer before we headed into dinner with a set menu of pumpkin soup, shrimp cocktail (heads and all), and chicken with vegetables in a tangy sauce.
Day 2 of 3 or is it 2 of 2?
We retired for the evening after watching the staff’s attempt at entertainment. It was quite… entertaining. Overnight it rained hard. The Tai-Chi introductory class was rescheduled in the dining room. Emma and I participated which turned out to be a great stretching workout.
We knew from the itinerary that breakfast for us was a sit down meal at 07:30. At 07:15, we got a knock on the door from one of the guides. He told us that we had to eat breakfast now and depart at 07:30 for the fishing village as a result of the bad weather. Two of us were still in the shower. Frustrated and wet, we went to the buffet for a light breakfast. Shortly after we finished,, we were given a full breakfast and told we had an hour before an exclusive tour of the fishing village (good thing military training teaches ‘on the bus — off the bus’).
The ship manager was apologetic and helped us sort out our plans as the trip was now shortened from two days to three. In essence, the Vietnamese government does not have a strong search and rescue plan in place for all the foreigners. So instead, during imminent weather they pull boats off the water citing safety (at least this was a rumour we heard). We didn’t mind the change in plans due to inclement weather but the speed with which we were told was a little annoying.
Once our plans were sorted out we went to the fishing village and a pearl farm. This was followed by a brunch before we returned ‘home’.
Vung Vieng Village – Fishing Village on the Water Tour
Vung Vieng Village is one of four remaining small fishing villages in the area. Prior to 2014, it was home to more than 60 families and was a perfect example of eco-tourism, although some people likened the tour to a human zoo. In 2014, 400 families and 1200 people across several fishing villages were resettled to Cai Xa Cong about 10km from Halong city and 10km from Vung Vieng fishing village (1 hour to Vung Vieng by boat). Unconfirmed, it is believed they were relocated against their will. Villagers are allowed to return to Vung Vieng each day, and continue fishing, maintaining the pear farm and supporting the tourism.
Traditionally, the residents of the floating villages were extremely poor with their only income for food, fuel and potable water coming from fishing. In 2015, USAID contributed $940,000USD to a number of local partners over a three-year period to support fish-farming, pearl cultivation, and eco-tourism. This helped the villagers generate a sustainable income and also raised local awareness of environmental protection issues.
Tour by bamboo boat
The two videos below highlight the quiet and peaceful area of the village. Check out Ben adding some comic relief.
Following the fishing village and a visit to a pear farm, we went back to the boat for a third breakfast – I guess they thought we were hobbits! We quickly realized the necessity to grab a bite as it was a four-hour ride back to Hanoi.
The trip to Hanoi was uneventful aside from a woman riding a motorcycle down the highway with a half a pig splayed across the bike (unwrapped).
The hotel staff promptly refunded the difference between the two night and one night boat cruise. Although the money still has not been refunded back into our credit card – part of the delay is the 2nd of September is the Vietnamese Independence Day and many people and organizations are on holiday.
Overall, it was a great trip and we highly recommend a visit to Ha Long Bay.