Ha Long Bay

We have just spent the last three days in Ha Long bay in Northern Vietnam. Ha Long bay is a massive bay filled with over 2000 small rocky islands which stick out of the water. The islands are mostly uninhabitable as most are very tall with cliffs around all sides. Unfortunately the only way to see Ha Long bay is through an organised tour, luckily our guesthouse offers tours at very cheap prices, we paid only $45 for the 3 days and two nights each which included all food and a night on a junk. Believe it or not we could actually have saved $10 if we had gone “economy” although I imagine this might have involved riding up to Ha Long bay on the back of a moped and sleeping on an inflatable lilo on the sea! We left Hanoi on our second morning and travelled on a new, air conditioned but very cramped minibus along with 10 other people and our guide, a young guy who we later found out had just finished University. Upon arrival in Ha Long city we were greeted by a massive fleet of wooden, diesel powered junks of which ours was pretty large. We were pleased to see upon boarding that we were the only group travelling on our boat. The boat had three decks with the top one being a sun deck, the second being a restaurant/bar and the lower deck having cabins all accessible from the outside of the boat. Since we knew in advance that each cabin had only two beds one of us would have to share with someone else. We rock-paper-scissored to decide who had to share and I lost. We were assigned cabins after boarding and luckily I got a cabin to myself. This turned out to be a major bonus as the cabins were small with two fans and the temperature outside must have been 30C plus and the humidity was as high or higher than I’d ever experienced. Anyway in the afternoon we went to an island with an extensive network of caves along with a million other boats who all seemed to turn up at the same time. While I am generally pretty upbeat about most things the masses of tourists on the huge number of boats was a bit of a disappointment, while I loved seeing Ha Long bay and staying on the boat it seemed that every group of tourists on every boat was following a similar schedule which made the whole thing feel a bit like we were a bunch of cattle being herded to market! Later in the afternoon we were herded on to the next island which atypically had a beach. We used this opportunity to go for a swim, purely to cool down and stop sweating. Craig had never swam in the sea before so was pretty excited and even managed to swim out to a boay which we reckoned was about 50 metres away and well out of his depth. It was a perfect place to start as the surrounding islands prevented any waves from getting to the beach.

Our boat contained 14 people of which nine had opted for a two day and five for the three day tour. The five people there for the entire three days were the three of us plus two Polish girls. We quickly got to know the Polish girls after we were seated opposite them for our first meal. The girls were twins named Maria and Zuzanna and were Polish twins who lived and studied in Germany. They were the same age as us and had taken a mid University gap year to travel the world. They’d been going for 7 months already and were almost finished in their travels. Anyway we got to know them and spent the evening playing cards and talking about travelling. Later on there was a thunderstorm so we went out to the roof of the boat to watch the lightning. I even managed to get a couple of videos of it which I’ll have to edit when I get home. We all aranged to get up for sunrise and got an early(ish) night. Being on my own in my cabn meant that I had two fans to myself but even so I only managed 4-5 hours sleep and I think Tom got even less, Craig has an amazing ability to fall into a deep sleep anywhere at any time! I woke for sunrise and got Tom and Craig up, unfortunately it was cloudy but was still fun. We have been a little confused several times about the time as only Tom wears a watch and it has a button which seems to result in the time changing itself on a regular basis. After going back to bed for another hours sleep I got up and after a shower had a knock on my door from Tom asking what the time was. Tom’s watch said it was almost 10am and he thought they missed breakfast and the first activity of the day. In actual fact it was almost 8am and I had been getting up for breakfast!

The second day was much for enjoyable than the first. In the morning the five of us had to “check out” of our cabins to transfer to another boat to be taken kayaking. After an hours transfer on a much smaller boat where Tom, Craig and I all sat on the prow went all went kayaking on Monkey island. Monkey island has a low arch on the side of it where you can kayak into the water filled interior of the island. As the kayaks were two man we had rock-paper-scissored for who got a kayak to themselves. Tom won although being on his own meant that he ended up with the guide as there were six of us in total. The kayaking was the first time that we really felt alone and detached form the tourist throng and partly for that reason we all loved it, especially Craig who had never kayaked before. Halfway round Monkey island it started raining very heavily with plenty of lightning. While this may sound like a bad thing Tom and Craig and I loved it as for the first time in a week we stopped sweating and actually felt something approximating cool.

The view from Cat Ba Island
The view from Cat Ba Island

After kayaking we boarded our little boat and headed to Cat Ba island where we were to spend the second night. We arrived, checked into our Hotel and I headed out to an Internet cafe along with the girls to start writing the last post on this blog. I only had a short amount of time and the internet took 4-5 mins to load each page so unfortunately I was unable to finish it. We were due back at the Hotel just after 2pm to embark on a 2 hour trek up the island into the national park. We were pick up by bus and driven to a nearby village where we met our guide. Our guide was a 71 year old called Chau (pronounced similarly to Joe) who spoke very little English with a very strong accent. Chau also had a notepad and a pen and, whenever he wanted to talk to us he would try saying the word he wanted to communicate with us first, then upon failing to get our understanding he would write down the word for us in perfectly spelled English. We though he only knew the odd word but as the trek progressed he even wrote down a few full sentences despite not being able to say them. Chau took us directly up a very steep hill at a pace that was almost running. Bearing in mind that we were already dripping with sweat before we started after about five minutes of this we were shattered but did our best and just about managed to keep up. It didn’t help that the path was more of a narrow mud track where the vegetation had been cut and worn back by constant use. It was as hard to find our footing as it was to keep up with Chau’s swift pace. Chau let us stop for a one or two minute rest a couple of times as he could see we were tired and the girls were taking a slightly more relaxed pace than us. We reached the top in about 30 minutes which must have been 200-300 metres up, anyway from the top there was an amazing view which you can see in the picture below. Once we got to the summit Chau took us on a walk along the top and showed us some of the trees and how they were used by the locals. We then decended at a breakneck pace and had a rest at the bottom of the hill. Chau took us to a circle of stones he had erected by a house for a break and an opportunity to buy a cold drink. By the time we got to the bottom all three of us were soaking wet with sweat. Tom and Craig were both wearing wife beaters (sleeveless vests often worn by Stella drinking louts) and I was wearing a t-shirt. All three of us had not a single dry patch of shirt remaining to the extent where you would have thought we had soaked our shirts in water and then put them back on without wringing them out. I could even wring out my ponytail! Tom was particularly embarrassed as his thin, white vest had become completely see through and was pretty stained, luckily for him we were all in the same boat.

After a break Chau took us into an undeground network of caves that had been used by the North Vietnamese to hide from the Americans and the bombing raids during the Vietnam war. The caves had basic electric lighting installed but had to be unlocked by Chau so we could enter. The five minute walk through the caves was very interesting as we were the only ones there and they were full of bats! We walked through the caves and out the other side back to the mini bus for our trip back to our hotel. When we got back Tom and Craig went for a quick walk to the beach however after the walk I had a headache and was feeling really dehydrated so I went back to the hotel for a break and a long drink of water.

We were served dinner at the hotel which was pretty basic and this time we were joined by plenty of other tourists at other tables. The food throughout the three days was not appalling and generally okay for me to eat but varied very little between meals and was not of the best quality. The other four said the fish was particularly bad and it generally went leargely uneaten. After dinner Tom and Craig wanted to go to a floating seafood restaurant for a little more food but, still feeling rough and being very behind with this blog I opted to go and use the Internet where I finished and published my previous post. Before we parted ways we all (including the girls) arranged to meet at a bar that looked interesting in the Lonely Planet at 21:15 with the contigency that if one group couldn’t find it we would meet back at the Hotel at 21:30. I found the bar on the way to use the internet it was 50-100m further down the main street than the guide indicated but large and I thought easy to find. I finished on the net just before 21:00 and headed back to the hotel to pick up the cards and head back out to the bar. I decided to make a very quick call the Alex to discuss an issue with the return of our deposit on our flat (a very large sum) and unfortunately my intended 5 minute call lasted for 13 minutes. I finished the call just after 21:20 and realising I was late rushed down to the bar (a 2 minute walk) thinking they would be annoyed that I was late. I bumped into the girls just before I got to the bar and we went in and ordered a drink and started chatting. We talked for a while looking over the balcony for Tom and Craig to turn up but when they were late I assumed that they had taken longer at the restaurant or Tom’s watch was wrong again. I didn’t want to leave the girls as I felt bad leaving them as we had invited them out for drinks that they couldn’t really afford. Finally when Tom and Craig still hadn’t arrived and it was approaching 10pm I ran back to the Hotel only to be told that they had been back and left. I gave our guide approximate directions to the bar and headed back hoping that they would find the bar (the town only had four roads) and failing that text me as they knew I had my phone with me. I got back to the bar and stopped worrying as by now there was nothing I could do. I spent the evening chatting to the girls about the politics of the EU (it was nice to get a non English perspective), the English perceptions of Polish immigrants and the pros and cons of capitalist verses socialist government. We actually had pretty good fun but since Tom and Craig still hadn’t arrived by 23:00 we headed back to the hotel to look for them. When I got back Tom Craig were back but the guide hadn’t seen them so hadn’t passed on my message and for some reason they had been unable to find the bar as it turned out it was marked wrongly in the lonely planet (they took the lonely planet with them) I had managed to find the bar easily as when I couldn’t find it where we thought it was I assumed we’d misread the map and kept walking down the road. Tom and Craig had reread the map realised the bar was definately not where the map said and assumed it had closed down (as has already happened to us once so far). We came as close as we’ve come to a major disagreement with Tom and Craig being pissed off that I’d not been back at 21:30 and me being pissed off that they hadn’t tried harder to find the place in such a tiny town. We also had a disagreement as by mine and Tom’s timekeeping we both thought were were back at the hotel from 21:00 to 21:20. Anyway luckily we’re very good friends and have got over much greater disagreements in the past so it was all okay. After failing to find us they’d found a bar and had a good time anyway so all was okay!

We got up early the next day to get the boat back to Ha Long city where we had a very average lunch joined by many other tourists and then got another very cramped but cool bus back to Hanoi and the Hanoi guesthouse. We said goodbye to our three day travelling partners Maria and Zuzanna on the bus and exchanged e-mail and web addresses.

We decided to have a night out so went out for a meal which was nice but nothing special for the higher than average price. We then went on a mini bar crawl of Hanoi stopping at quite a few bars two of which sell their home brewed beer, one of which is actually a microbrewery complete with big copper brewing equipment behind the bar. The home brewed beer was a nice attempt at approximating Belgian beer but lacked the depth of a truly good beer despite being highly drinkable. We probably spent about four or five hours heatedly debating capital punishment and the prison system, benefits for the jobless and unwilling but able, the political statements of the movie “Three Kings”, the legal system in general, the new anti-smoking law, the punishment of drug addicts and the drug laws in general and a whole host of other interesting topics. To be perfectly honest we all share similar views on most of these issues but none of us likes to back down and we often disagree greatly on the finer details. While the arguments were often very heated I think we all enjoyed it thoroughly.  

We finished the night with some ultra cheap Bia Hoi at our favourite local outdoor drinking spot complete with tiny plastic chairs and tables. Nine beers (three rounds) cost us just over 50p but to be fair for the amount we’d drunk we were surprisingly sober so the freshly brewed stuff can’t be too strong.

For the first time I am now pretty much up to date we had a pretty late start today and have taken it as a day to catch up on much needed rest so not much to report. I’m going to try to upload a bunch of photos now but yet again I have typed way to much and still have plenty to say! I hope you are all well I have heard some feedback from Alex, Mum and Tom’s parents that they are enjoying reading this but if it does get a little long winded also remember that this, as well as a way to keep in touch also serves as my own personal, unedited diary so feel free to skip the boring bits!

Author: Chris Greenwood

IT Consultant, traveller, foodie, husband and occasional blogger

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