Halong Bay, Viet Nam
20° 53' N 107° 39' E
Jun 28, 2009 10:23
Distance 931km

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Blog 19 - Hanoi and Halong Bay

Arriving back in Vietnam felt quite strange, almost like returning home. We were handed a note by an airport policeman warning of taxi drivers ripping off tourists and advising us to book a taxi from within the airport terminal. Following his advice, we asked him where to book a taxi and he sent us out to the taxi queue outside the building.


Surviving the taxi driver (who didn’t try to rip us off) we arrived at The Royal Hotel to be met by the hotel owner or manager immediately trying to sell us trips or onward transportation. Not being in the mood for more hard sell, we used the old “maybe later” routine and climbed the five stories to our room (no lift).


Heading out to do some research into the possibility of getting a bus the next day to Halong Bay, we came across a Sinh Café office (one of the best Vietnamese travel agencies) and a wonderfully helpful and knowledgeable saleswoman. Despite our initial plans to do no more than ask for a bus ticket price, we walked out of the office having booked a bus, overnight cruise on a Junk through Halong Bay & return ferry and bus tickets four days later and two nights in another hotel when we returned to Hanoi.


Wanting to spend some more time in Halong Bay, we had dinner, did a bit of planning and sneaked back to the hotel without having to speak to the owner and without having to tell her we had booked a trip elsewhere. Having referred back to our trusty ‘Agoda’ website, we booked three nights in a hotel on Catba Island in Halong Bay.


Leaving the hotel the next morning having claimed we had changed our mind and were heading for the train station, we got onto the minibus bound for Halong Bay and endured and over excitable tour guide who wanted to interact with us every five minutes of the four and a half hour journey.


Finally arriving at Halong Bay having passed through some open cast coal mining districts we were met by a harbour full of tourist boats loading up for the trip into the bay. Apparently there are approximately 600 of these boats now plying their trade in the area so our visions of a quiet, exclusive cruise were sadly left at the massive, purpose-built quay, or ‘loading area’ as seems more appropriate.


Heading into the bay however, we managed to leave most of the other boats behind and got talking to some of the other people on our floating hotel. Admittedly this is the first hotel we’ve been in that has to turn off the electricity (and hence air conditioning) when it’s moving in case it runs out of power.


After lunch on board, our first stop on the Butlins style cruise was a large limestone cave which - despite the conveyer belt like procession of tourist traffic and the guides’ insistence on telling you that each rock or stalactite looked like an elephant, a monkey, a toad or a Buddha (they didn’t) – was actually quite stunning.


Moving across the bay, we visited a small ‘floating village’ of local fishing families who spend their lives on raft houses, only stepping ashore when they have to for trading purposes. In a slightly sad encroachment on their traditional livelihood, the tourist companies now also use their floating villages as bases for kayaking around the bay.


Having paddled around the bay and into a small sea-cave, we rafted up with an American, a Dutchman and two Israeli girls and started some deep and meaningful discussion on Hollywood films.


Having been warned of the jellyfish in the bay where we were kayaking, we motored about half a mile away (where apparently the jellyfish suddenly weren’t a problem…) and were told we could go swimming.


Not wanting to look like a wuss, I decided I had to jump off the top of the three storey boat but by the time I had finally plucked up the courage, half the original jumpers had already decided to fish their swim and climb back on board. Vicki offered me great encouragement by telling me to hurry up then climbing down to the lowest level and jump in only after everybody else had checked for jellyfish.


After the swim, we had a beer on the sun deck and headed down for dinner before spending the evening chatting to our new kayaking discussion group. Heading for bed, we were ‘entertained’ by a Norwegian contingent and (more worryingly) the boat’s crew, drinking beer and singing karaoke until late into the night.


Since we were not continuing with the scheduled tour and instead were headed to Catba Island and our next hotel, we were told to be ready for transfer to another boat at seven thirty. Saying our goodbyes, we headed across to the other boat where we had breakfast with some girls from Northern Ireland and waited for our arrival at the island.


Barely an hour after boarding, we were told that we had to transfer to another boat (for some reason via the engine room of the one we were on) and were ferried across to the island to be put on board a public bus at the ferry terminal. Needless to say, we were very grateful that the details had been sorted out by the travel agent since none of the boat crews seemed t speak English.


Finally arriving in the main town on Catba (we’re still not sure if the town is actually called Catba) we realised that we had no idea where the hotel was. Having no other option, we paid 100,000Dong to a local rip-off merchant (taxi driver) and headed four hundred yards up the hill to our hotel.


The hotel certainly wasn’t the five star accommodation it claimed to be (although to be fair we hadn’t paid anything like five star prices) but it did have two outside swimming pools and a fantastic beach front location.


The next two days were spent recovering from what seemed like near-constant travelling and planning the next sections of our trip – carefully interspersed with some swimming / playing in the waves on the beach.


Using the shuttle taxi service (not surprisingly at a cost of 1 tenth what we had paid the taxi driver) we headed into town and walked around the fish and fresh produce market. The town itself was a strange cross between Millport and Blackpool with thousands of Vietnamese tourists but virtually no westerners – to the point that we were openly stared at on the street. To be fair though, when on the beach, the biggest hassle was from Vietnamese wanting to practice their English with a real live foreigner.


All too quickly though, it was time to leave the island and head back to Hanoi (strangely it felt like heading home after a holiday). Since we didn’t know exactly what the return ticket we had was actually for, we went to the hotel reception, used some good old pointing and ‘speaking slowly and in a loud voice’ and managed to get a free lift into town.


Expecting a ferry terminal, we were surprised to be dropped off at a waiting public bus. Dubiously climbing on board, we endured some locals arguing about seats and a flat-out ride over the mountain road which was horribly reminiscent of the closing scenes from The Italian Job to arrive at a ferry terminal on the other side of the island.


Retrieving our luggage from the bus (since everybody else seemed to be doing so) we blindly followed the locals past the obvious (vehicle) ferry to a small boat which was then loaded to capacity with 50% more for luck. We then lumbered our way across what seemed to resemble the English Channel in terms of sheer numbers of ships and arrived at a middle-of-nowhere quay with three buses parked.


Fortunately one said Hanoi in the window so hoping that our tickets covered this as well, we boarded and kept our heads down while yet another argument over seating erupted. So with a packet of Ritz biscuits and a bottle of water for lunch (and a couple of cockroaches for company) we settled down for another four hour journey.

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