My Vietnam Launch – Hanoi Revisited & Bai Tua Long Bay Cruise – 2018
When I was in Cambodia, ending my 2 months of backpacking, I trusted my Hanoi Hotel Gratitude to book the best things to do in the Hanoi region and they didn’t disappoint, apart from the tour companies charging me the sole traveller fee which can be excessive .. more like extortion really. Sapa & Fansipan were amazing (refer to previous blogs) and now I have 2 days to revisit Hanoi after my Halong Bay cruise. Everyone does a Halong Bay cruise visiting this region but more are doing the Bai Tua Long Bay cruise due to less boats and people venturing there. Bai Tua Long Bay offers the same sights generally and the smaller number of boats is a real advantage, trust me. There is also less lining up & waiting to do the excursion jaunts but before I talk more of the cruise trip, I wish to start from my Hanoi departure, so please bear with me.
I had to awake early the next day so it was an early night for me to recover from my Sapa days and to catch the 8am bus to Halong Bay. The hotel certainly looked after me in this area. Another valet pickup to the bus but it was a blessing this time as I only needed my daypack so I was lucky the hotel stored my larger backpack for me until my return. Feeling a bit like royalty, really with this valet provision. Unlike my previous bus trip with 47 passengers, this trip only required a 12 seater Coaster bus, but the leg room was very tight and we were very cosy. Real cosy .. arrgh! To Halong Bay we travelled in a SE direction from Hanoi and a full 2.5hrs, with a stopover (170klms) at a half way point at a captive tourist gallery that was priced accordingly (to find an exit was difficult, hence the word captive) … Priced to rich Chinese tourists that is. Ouch!!! They had disability artists and sewers and other trades doing embroidery pictures, sculptures, paintings, etc and that was my standout point to see their amazing skills, but I knew of course these artists would be paid an absolute pittance to the goods sold.
With the stopover it turned out to be a 4hr trip and upon arrival at the Hong Gai Tourist Wharf, we literally exploded out of the van (packed tight) to a swarm of people (tourists), mainly Asians/ Chinese, all with no sense of any orderly fashion in keeping to groups. Organisers are yelling out in relation to the cruise ship names for boarding. The wharf follows the bay’s edge and is quite long, so the number of loading craft can be high in volume. These loading craft take you to the respective cruise ships anchored a few hundred metres off shore and then tied to the rear of the cruise ship for the bay journey after unloading the passengers.
Our ship was the Oriental Sails, and we were lucky quite a few other landing boats had already left the wharf so the drama was less erratic, but barely. In walking down, the numerous steps to our craft I heard a loud “Brian” coming from a few boats down. It was Robert & his wife from my Sapa 6klms trek the other day. They came running up to say “hello” and were thrilled to see me again, as I was to see them. We were just getting into a good conversation when we were both called to urgently go to our loading craft. Bummer!!! We never got to exchange our contact details. Bummer, again! To be recognised through this loading mayhem was amazing … or do I really stand out of the crowd for some unknown reason? LOL!
Our Oriental Sails cruise ship was moored close to shore so it was a very fast trip. Not worth putting on the safety water vest. Upon boarding we were ushered to the roof platform for our safety induction and welcoming and receiving our berthing keys to our respective rooms. The Captain was ‘quirky’ in his address to us describing the status levels of each room upon handing the keys out. My introduction was last of the groups and my room was the “President’s Room”, the high-end room. After this embarrassment I felt guilty having the palatial room, he called it and being a sole traveller too. Guilt elapsed quickly once I realised the money I paid for the berth and to be charged the Sole Traveller Levy imposed as mentioned at the start of this blog. This fee doesn’t miss its ouch level.
The Captain was forceful in demanding we settle into our rooms promptly and meet in the food hall so the lunch can get underway and he can set the course to the much further North Bai Tua Long Bay and to get through the mire of other cruise ships mooring in the closer Halong Bay.
My room, through the Captain’s introduction, was the only one fitted with an ensuite and it was most presentable too. Luxury abounds. Gathering into the food hall upstairs from my room, we were immediately seated, no chance of conversation. The table was in full dress and splendour. The Chef explained the meals coming and the time schedule for the other meal times and then he asked each of us (groups) to separately introduce ourselves and provide some commentary on our origins and backgrounds. I was relieved when my story was applauded loudly. I was the only Westerner too and my story being so different from my Asian travellers was obvious, really. The next shock was the 10-course serving for lunch! Yikes!! So much food! You cannot believe the high-level detail in the presentation of the food. You’d think you were in a palace or something!!
The ship started moving, we are under way. I found myself sitting almost central to the large dining table however the only connection I received was with a Malaysian family, parents with 2 teenagers sitting to my left. They explained each of the meals coming out and which were to try first. In all my Earth years I have never seen so much food brought out in a procession and each impeccable in presentation. How are they managing this on such a medium size 20berth cruise ship? The pressure was on to eat full and fast .. how can I stop this food rollout? .. I’m going to burst at the seams! I’m not a big food eater at the best of times and I’m already pushing my limit at course 6. Four more to go! There’s no escape … I’ll have to disguise my effort. So far, the plan worked, my new teenage friends were helping me out as well in between their moments of shyish laughter.
Finally course 10 had been extinguished … please just let me sit here .. I don’t feel the need to move. I feel like I have to be carried out. The Chef has come out to receive the obvious applause and was looking for total acceptance of course. That was the pressure placed upon him and his kitchen hands, no doubt. All is good, but he now insists we clear the chairs and re-sit ourselves up onto the roof deck and recover there, whilst his crew clear the room ready for dinner later on. OMG!!! Another 10course sitting. You’re kidding!! I can’t see myself surviving that!
The rooftop deck was in full sunshine, with most of the people taking the only shade shelter in the centre. I didn’t mind, I’m a sun person anyway, and the deck chair was just what I needed at the moment. My stomach, now overstretched .. just in need of a power hibernation. We had cleared the armada of other boats and were in open ‘sea’ amongst all the well-known carved out limestone islands jutting out of the bay waters like nature’s monuments of peace. The water is so clear and of a strong emerald to blue colour. The clarity was amazing!!!
After about 2hrs of cruise ship motor humming we slowed down and took anchor. Our guide calls us all together on the roof deck to explain our next adventure in seeing the newly proclaimed Marine Environment Park and its nature centre using the existing floating village of Cap De where some 260 villagers lived harmoniously with the natural environment. This village relocation took place in 2014 where they housed the villagers back onto the mainland to improve their living conditions. I truly wonder if that was the real case and had they really improved their living conditions and lifestyle. Surely, they would soon see they were robbed from the amazing nature’s beauty and fresh fishing, etc and the calmness of their paradise, now paid with the hustle & bustle of motorised calamity. Sometimes, the natives protect their environment better than Governments. The Government, now using the village restored 24 of the floating houses for tourism out of about 60 that were in existence.
Our guide explains our options of taking our own kayaks in pairs or take the tourist row boats under the control of the local mainland people, predominately rowed by ladies. With his reference to the sea breezes and swirling light water currents it may be a struggle for kayaking (4klm loop) so we all chose the mainland row boats after fitting our life jackets. Once on the water, the sea breezes stopped and noticed other cruise people of the other boats using kayaks … argghh!!!! It seemed like a ploy to engage the rowboats for more revenue. The kayaks were free I learnt later.
We circled the small island with the floating village in all its bright new paint colours, assuming the lifestyle accompanying village life. I had already witnessed a very large floating village in the inland lake, Tonie’ Sap … Cambodia, out from Siem Reap (previous early blog). Both villages were mostly self-contained with their own school, church, market & the like. Each house was small in nature, nothing too glamorous but obviously, served the required purpose. Their docks lined with all types of fishing gear, traps & nets.
Leaving the floating village, the rowers took us out to more of the open sea to another close uninhabited island with a sea arch carved and eroded over thousands of years or more. The arch was so low you felt the need to lower your head. Touching the stalagmites was forbidden as human body oils, even on fingertips can prevent the lime water from adhering to the tip, thereby preventing its growth downwards. Hitting one’s head on them can cause a very nasty gash and this must be avoided at all costs.
Our sea adventure was over in an hour which was perfect timing for returning to the boat and undertaking your preferred relaxation, unpacking and in readiness for the dinner onslaught fast arriving. I chose to unpack and securing another deck chair and revisiting my recent photos taken on my Samsung S7 phone. My backpacks could not afford the space for a SLR camera which was such a shame but one must be practical when your packing is on the heavy weight side. After boarding, the Captain started the loud diesel engines and steered the boat between two large peaks apparently to seek a secluded night spot quite some nautical miles away. When we just started to recline into our deck chairs our guide informs us, we are to explore a special island within the hour. While putting on our life jackets and forming a line we are instructed on the safety aspects forthcoming and that we will go inside a large cave and see a rare sandy beach.
With a short run in the tag boat, we could already see the Govt wharf and other berthing boats secured in place there. We were advised of the tight timeframe so we had best not linger. You had to be careful on the narrow steps and rock paths to a higher mid-level cave of the island peak amongst the other travellers. I noticed one of the groups had a very beautiful guide who spoke perfect English and very informative. She was gorgeous and very toned like a gymnast/ athlete. Apologies for the typical male comment but she was so much better than our guide in every way and our guide was almost silent so I trained my ear to her voice of knowledge.
The steps were quite steep and winding and the cave entrance was very unassuming but opened its glorious belly to a myriad of stalagmites of all different sizes and colours. What a hidden gem! It was the feeling of being within a snowball that sits on a child’s dressing table. The artificial lighting was done superbly without being over-done. Truly nature is wonderful when you see these magical sights. It was surprisingly difficult to take photographs too, so apologies, again. Walking back down the steps we are directed to another path that led you onto the sandy beach. Being Australian, where we are abundantly blessed with the world’s best beaches, it was a bit of a let down but I respected everyone’s comment of enjoying a rare sandy beach in Vietnam.
This 1hour excursion was soon over, alas, but the beautiful guide remained in our circle for most of it and made our excursion far better. I felt the need to thank her but respected her privacy, etc. Walking back to the wharf I had a dreaming moment of Robinson Crusoe on such a beach. LOL!!! Back onto the boat the Captain spent no time in getting underway, obviously the timeframe was critical in setting up for the night. We were given enough time for a shower and a change of clothes in readiness for those wishing to partake in the culinary of making authentic Vietnamese Spring Rolls. The table was full of volunteers so it was left to me to be one of the tasters to which I enjoyed immensely, although I was not inclined to eat more food really. The rolls were amazing! We were given an hour’s grace before we would be hit with Dinner; although I had no inclination of any hunger present of course. As if we really needed feeding! The food presented at dinner was tremendous and heavier in nature, compared to the so-called light lunch prior. Can’t seem to fathom why 10 courses is so necessary. Thankfully, I had my Malaysian teenagers to rescue me again. Funny, how all passengers retained their same seats, again with some refusing to communicate. Found this so bewildering. As you can imagine, the dinner was much the same as lunch with the overburden of food within my stomach. How am I going to sleep tonight?
After dinner, we were again ushered out for the clean-up and for those interested, the cruise personnel had a number of fishing poles ready for squid fishing. It was a good activity to overlook upon and hear the laughter and shrieks of squid sightings. No-one was lucky enough to catch one so that may have been a blessing too. My deck chair was a relaxing welcome when most had returned to their berth cabins. A neighbouring boat restarted and anchored further away. Its generator was abusing the peace & quiet in this sea wilderness. I suspect our Captain had told them to relocate. One could imagine the populated chaos of the more tourist boats in Halong Bay. Our resting anchor for the night was the centre of Bai Tua Long Bay and due East of Hanoi on the same Latitude so we had come a fair way North from the township of Halong Bay.
Being some 6m off the water surface on the roof deck, I had a clear view of the squid fishing and enjoying the warmer air but the minute it became not so, I returned to my cabin and surprisingly was fast asleep in no time. Was it the salt air or the complete knowledge of peace in this serene wilderness?
Luckily, I had set my alarm clock for the early morning rise to partake in the Tai Chi group activity, set for 7am start. The elderly gentleman, nearing 70yrs old I believe was excellent and I was amazed how controlled you had to be to achieve the fluidness of the moves and your breathing. No wonder the instructor looked 60, not 70yrs! At exactly 1 hour’s end, I was lathered in sweat (early sun had emerged in good form too) and noticing I seemed to be out of shape in fitness. All my recent trekking, I should be in very good fitness. I may be wrong by the looks of this event .. Go Figure!
As soon as the Tai Chi activity was finished the Captain raised the anchor & we started on our journey back to Halong Bay wharf area. Retiring to my cabin for a well-earned shower (my cabin was the only one with an ensuite, so I’m enjoying this part of luxury). I had to repack too in readiness for a mid-day departure. Breakfast was a full on 4 course meal … Oh .. my stomach!!! Someone will have to help me depart & board the tag boat and into the van bus, I’m sure!
With my packing and shower duties completed I ‘hastened’ up the stairs to the roof deck to say ‘good-bye’ to the giants of lime peaks we pass. You can’t help but be connected to these wonders. The silence was broken when we were scurried into the Dining Room .. thinking of a quick de-briefing and then departure, now that we are anchored into Halong Bay amongst the myriad of boats of all sizes. OMG!!! Lunch is now in session … another 10course meal!!! I won’t fit into our van bus to Hanoi now! A wrap or small hamburger would have done just fine … I’ve never eaten so much … & in a short period of time. Each food setting, I was in such awe I had forgotten to take photos to prove this over-indulgence. Surviving the lunch onslaught, I said good-bye to my fabulous Malaysian family and for their total embracement of this lone Aussie traveller and I re-issued this good-bye again upon our landing departure on the mainland. Unfortunately, I was unable to spot Robert & his wife from the other boats so I had to board the van, eagerly awaiting departure for the 4hr return trip to Hanoi & thankfully I gained a good comfortable seat.
For some reason, the return trip only took 3hrs, with a 20minute stopover which allowed me to receive a very warm re-welcoming from Hanoi Gratitude Hotel & to drop off my laundry to a very pleasing lady in a side street in Hanoi. They are so grateful for EVERY business walking in the door. I also managed to find a shop that repaired my glasses and under a lot of protests by him, he refused any cash from me. So in love with the people, I am meeting here.
I’ll leave this blog here to start my Hanoi revisited & to find my next location afterwards in my upcoming blog.
Like my previous blog on Sapa/ Fansipan I wish to dedicate this blog to my youngest brother, Rod taken by a severe Cardiac Arrest 4yrs ago at just 54yrs. It’s his birthday today 22nd May. Scotch tonight to celebrate his life with us.
Thank you again for reading my blogs and I trust you will stay safe, happy & healthy, especially through this COVID-19 pandemic and for 2021 to be a far better year. I do not receive any commissions &/or ‘perks’ from the above nominated businesses & locations as I am purely happy to provide the acknowledgement and connection.
I always look forward to seeing the feedback so don’t be afraid to comment. My next blog/s will be more of the amazing Vietnam experiences and quite a few were life changing, & not just for me.
Live life to the most and a quote that I truly love is from Eckhart Tolle ..
“If I am not the hero of my life … who in the hell could be?”