Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Vignettes of Vietnam -- Part 3: Ha Long Bay Cruise

While Aren was working during the week, I took, upon his recommendation, a boat cruise on Ha Long Bay, one of the most popular tourist destinations in North Vietnam.  Ha Long translates roughly as "where the dragon descends into the sea." The legend is that a dragon, charging to the sea, gouged out areas of the land as it swung around its tail.  When it finally reached the sea and plunged in, the nearby land was filled with water, leaving only the high points which became the islands. Ha Long Bay has some 2000 karst formation islands that rise straight up out of the water, many of which have caves and lakes in and on them. Since there are basically no sandy beaches, tourists visit on small cruise ships, taking in various sights along the way. 

Aren and I shopped around at three different travel agencies for Ha Long Bay cruises.  Choices included various star ratings and also "party cruises."  The travel agents each had their recommendation of what we should choose for me.  One said, "The two star cruise isn't appropriate for your mother.  She's an old woman and the three star cruise would be more appropriate for her."  Aren assures me that this comment isn't rude in Vietnamese.  Calling someone "old" doesn't quite have all the negative baggage it has in the West. However, it is interesting that we didn't choose that agent for some reason. 

We eventually chose an agent called "Eddie." We both felt he was straight forward and seemed reliable. The arrangement made was that on the day we were to leave, he'd see that I was picked up at Aren's apartment and brought to where the bus would leave from. Right on time, I had a phone call saying he was outside the building. We suspected that my transportation might be on the back of his motorcycle, and we were right.  Fortunately, I had packed minimally for the two-day, one-night cruise in a small day pack, and with it on my back, I mounted Eddie's motorcycle for my first ride in Hanoi traffic to where we met the bus. Fortunately, the streets weren't too crowded early in the morning, and my ride went without a hitch. After the 160 km bus ride east with my companions and guide for the next couple of days, we arrived at the shore where we all climbed into a small open boat that took us out to our cruise boat. Everybody was required to put on a life jacket each time we were in this open boat. Throughout our cruise, the small boat was pulled along side our cruise boat to be available for excursions to land.

Here's our wooden cruise boat with its twelve cabins, a dining room, kitchen, crew's quarters. and a sun deck. I spent only a little time in the clean and comfortable cabin because there were always activities available to take part in and interesting people to talk with. 

The passengers were a varied lot -- somewhat like in an Agatha Christie novel.  They were: two young men from Italy -- one a student, the other employed in his family's vineyard and winery business; a family from Vietnam who now lived in Thailand -- father, mother, adult son, and 84-year-old grandmother; a 40-something couple from France; a 30-something couple from Germany; a middle-aged businessman from Denmark who had brought along his mountain bike which he had just ridden from SaPa (next blog post) to Hanoi; an American man of Mexican-Hawaiian parents who was born in Ireland,  said he'd been in the final 20 on American Idol, had paid for his trip singing in a drag show, and worked for the American embassy in London; two 20-something rather shy French women; two Vietnamese young men traveling separately but both having grown up in the U.K.; a very young-looking Asian couple who kept mostly to themselves, spoke little English, and whose female partner spent much of her time taking selfies ( see photo below); and me.  

My cabin was right off the walkway pictured on the left of the following photo.

Here's where we ate our meals, visited and some sang karaoke after dinner.

The first excursion on our first day was to an enormous cave comprised of several rooms  with walkways constructed between them. You have to climb up stairs carved into the rock to reach the opening.  Its formations are a result of water in the karst formations, we were told. Here we are on our way in the small boat.

That's the cave entrance up there.

Here's the view looking back to our boat in the bay from the cave entrance.

The following photos are taken inside the cave.

Views of the bay on the way back down from the cave.

Next we headed to an area to go kayaking.  Unfortunately, kayaking entailed getting a little wet, so I didn't use my camera much, not wanting to get it wet with salt water. It was fun to get to see some of the karst formations closer up.

An entrepreneurial mom with her children selling snacks where we boarded the kayaks.

When we returned to the boat, our guide treated us to some fresh fruit and drinks on the deck as he outlined the rest of our evening and our second day's plans.

As night fell, the view of the other lighted boats and their reflections on the bay were magical.  

Meals on the boat were delicious and had a variety of dishes. The crew were accommodating of various dietary needs.

The second day, our excursion took us to visit a pearl farm.

This man's job is to implant round pieces of shell into the oysters with the hope of having them create a pearl. Only a small proportion of the oysters produce pearls of a quality that can be used.

On the way back to Ha Long city we had a cooking class where we all had a chance to to make spring rolls that were then prepared as part of our final lunch.

Thank you, Aren, for suggesting this trip. It was an experience I'll never forget. Also, thank you to my interesting and friendly fellow passengers, our guide Minh, the crew on our boat, and to Eddie from The Sing Cafe Travel in Hanoi who made the arrangements.  

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