ha long bay
& cat ba island
Near the end of our stay in Hanoi, we decided
to take an overnight trip to Halong Bay. This is a pretty standard
thing to do, so there are 8 million little travel shops in Hanoi
that will book it for you. After some research, we settled on
an Australian-run shop (Kangaroo Cafe) that was quite popular.
It turned out that this was a very high-class joint and the price
was outrageous (over $100 each) not to mention fully booked, so
we decided to check some other shops. We found one that seemed
as good as any (Kim's Cafe - which there are several), with reasonable
prices (about $20 each), so we signed up.
lots of boats
ready to set off into the bay
The next morning, a mini-van picked us up,
crammed us in with about 7 other people, and we zipped off towards
Halong Bay. The journey takes about 4 hours although it feels
much longer when you’re sleepy, a little carsick, and trying
to magically shrink a few sizes in order to not squish too much
into the stranger next to you. Fortunately, the drive itself is
somewhat redeemed by some of the gorgeous farmland and rice patty
scenery on the way. Eventually we arrived in Halong, were re-shuffled
a few times with a bunch of other mini-van and bus passengers,
and finally herded onto a big boat – “junks”
they’re called. We were certainly surprised at how many
boats there were – maybe 50 or so in all, though fortunately
not all leaving the dock at the same time.
So we set off into the mist of Halong Bay.
All the pictures you see advertising the trips show a misty view
with small islands peppering the water and layering off into the
distance. It really does look exactly like that, and seeing it
from the boat, and in all directions, is a very memorable experience.
Our guide spent some time explaining the folklore associated with
Halong Bay (see sidebar).
After a couple hours of cruising through islands
we made a stop at a place called the Surprising Amazing Cave.
It was amazing, but it wasn’t really very surprising. Our
theory is that the name is just a translation that went wrong
somewhere, but stuck anyway. Our guide claimed that the surprise
is actually a large stalactite that juts out upward from the side
of a wall in the shape of a large male reproductive organ and
is lit up by a dim red light. We did take a picture of it, but
we’re not posting it to spare our mothers the embarrassment
(send us an email if you’d like us to send it to you). Near
the island was a floating village. We’re not sure if it
sometimes floats somewhere else, but in any case, we felt lucky
to get a good view of the houses and people (and even their pets!)
that live exclusively on the water.
this is where
we spent most of our time
Other than that one stop, we just slowly meandered
through the islands. We simply sat on deck, traded stories and
travel plans with the other passengers and took it all in.
Our first day ended at Cat Ba Island. We had
elected to sleep onshore instead of on the boat (due mostly to
Grace’s high susceptibility to sea sickness, but also because
we thought it might be neat to explore the island). Upon arrival
at the dock, we were unceremoniously plopped onto the backs of
a couple mopeds (something we had fearfully avoided for our entire
stay in Hanoi) and after a fairly harrowing ride, arrived at our
hotel. The hotel was rather bleak, but fine for one night. We
dumped our stuff and happily strolled through the tiny island
village before dinner. It is a simple place, and quite enjoyable.
Fishing seems to be the default way to make a living, and there
are a smattering of small hotels and restaurants for the tourists
that don’t stay on the boats.
In the morning we were whisked away on mopeds
again to re-join our boat for another half-day of lazily wandering
amongst the islands. No stops, no explanations from the guide,
just hundreds of tiny islands. For something that seems like it
might be quite boring, it was really quite nice - very relaxing
and beautiful. We didn’t tire of staring out at the misty
islands and watching the occasional boat go by. The views were
unlike any we had seen before. Too soon, we arrived back at the
mainland dock and were herded back into our mini-van for the long