Posts Tagged 'Ha Long Bay'

Back to the city

We said goodbye to our travel mates who returned to Hanoi in order to take the night train up north for a trek in the mountains. Axel and I and our young solo German traveler boarded a smaller boat in the middle of the bay and set course for Cat Ba Island.

We landed on a small pier where bikes were waiting for us and biked into the national park along a mostly level road. At a small village we parked our bikes had a cup of Vietnamese (milky) coffee, then continued on foot for a walk in the woods. The wildlife, apart from monkeys and the unique Langur (also a monkey), consists mostly of exotic insects. We were told there are snakes and our guide used a stick to announce our presence. We didn’t see any monkeys or snakes but plenty of insects.

We returned the same way we had come and had lunch on the boat followed by a swim before landing on another part of Cat Ba Island where a bus took us to the hotel at the end of a long boulevard. The harbor was full of fishing boats and floating restaurants. Everything floats here – whole villages with their ‘gardens’ where oysters, mussels and clams are farmed.

The boulevard strip in Cat Ba looks just like any other boulevard strip in a seaside tourist town (I am thinking of Salisbury, NH). Much neon, tons of hawkers, bars and restaurants and a night market full of cheap China stuff, maybe the latter one wouldn’t find in Salisbury. Large blow up plastic swimming pools for kids were filled not with water but with something that looked like black rice which the kids manipulated with their trucks and buckets as it it was sand.

Our guide invited us for a beer by the harbor where all the locals seemed to have congregated. It was a jolly place with cheap eats and drinks. Whatever didn’t go into people’s mouths was dropped on the ground. The place was a mess – not just there but at all the restaurants – someone must come in the middle of the night and sweep everything away.

Dinner was on our own – we had about 100 choices but followed our guide’s lead, which was a good oneL fried rice, nems, smoked pork in a noodle dish, and fresh coconut juice.

At night the rains moved in, excalty as predicted on my smart phone. The next day the skies were dark and something akin to a monsoon hit the island. As a result our departure was delayed a bit. Men in uniform at the embarkation pier held us back until the rains had passed.

Day 3 of our cruise consisted essentially of cruising back to meet up with the big boat, the same one we had overnighted on and make a passenger exchange before continuing to Ha Long from where we boarded a bus back to Hanoi.

At night we splurged and ate at a Trip Advisor recommended restaurant on a rooftop overlooking one of Hanoi’s many lakes. The cuisine was exquisite, the cocktails and wine yummy, and the bill high. The Vietnamese currency has so many zeros in it that it feels like monopoly money. Only when we did the conversion did we realize how much we had spent.

Our new hotel is smack in the center of something big; when we returned from our dinner the streets around our hotel were completely filled with people (several hundreds is my guess) sitting on the tiny plastic stools, drinking and eating. It was a bit like Bangkok’s Chinatown’s pop up restaurants, but much louder. Rave music pumped through the air, indicating that there were some very popular bars hidden behind the mass of people on their plastic stools.

The tourist business is Halong Bay’s main business it seems. Hundreds of tourists, bussed like us from Hanoi and elsewhere, embarked on a variety of junks, ranging from small to large, from junky to elegant. This is why it took so long to pick a cruise operator – there too many choices.

We boarded a small sloop, put on our orange life jackets (everything is heavily regulated) and found our way to our home for the next 24 hours, a midsize boat with, to my relief, its center of gravity at a reasonable level.

Our tour guide (Dung but call me Danny) presented the program, we got our cabins (small but comfortable), and then came up for a wonderful lunch while we wove our way between the majestic limestone rocks formations that, according to legend, represent dragons sent here to defend against the ever agressive Chinese. Slowly the pack of boats dissolved as everyone went their own own. Only a handful remained on a similar course

At lunch we learned that Axel’s helpful gesture to turn the fish after we had finished one side, brought bad luck, according to our four table mates, two of them from Singapore and the other two from Canada but all with far eastern ancestry (China, Taiwan, Thailand and Korea). That explained that after he turned it no one ate anymore fish

We stopped for a kayak outing, with rather heavily used kayaks being brought to our boat. I was a little anxious about kayaking which I haven’t done since my rotator cuff operation. Luckily we were in a double and Axel would pick up the slack when my weak arm muscles refused to work. After about an hour, and doing 30 paddles at a time, then 1 minute rest, just like my exercises, the muscles started to obey and things got better.

Hot and sweaty we went for a swim off the boat before cocktail hour arrived on the deck, followed by a cooking lesson (fresh spring rolls) that we ate on the spot. We had lively dinner conversations with our co-travelers most of whom had selected the two day/one night cruise and would leave us the next morning. Only three of us continued, Axel and I and our young solo traveler from Germany.

Squid fishing was also on the program but we were too pooped from the various activities and called it an early night. When one of the Flamish travelers told me her parents would never ever take such a trip and do such exhausting things as kayaking and swimming off a boat, I felt OK for being tired.

The next morning we climbed up the nearly 500 steps to the top of Titop Island with countless other tourists. Titop is (was?) a Russian the Vietnamese clearly revered, with an island named after him and a very Soviet looking statue of him sternly looking out over the waters in his crisp granite uniform.

Next on the program was a visit to an enormous cave, called surprise cave, presumable because the large stalagmite that stuck out like a sore thumb looked a bit like a penis, lit with red flood lights for extra effect. We learned that the French discovered the cave. I had a short experience of wriggling through a small hole in the wall into a bit of darkness. It’s not my piece of cake. I think these spelonkers are very brave.  I am sure there are thousands of caves more here, waiting to be discovered. The ones that were, up and down the country, were used to hide people and supplies at war time, probably since ancient times.


September 2017
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