You can’t really talk about Hanoi without mentioning Halong Bay. And you can’t really walk around Hanoi’s Old Quarter without seeing a tour ad for it.
We weren’t sure we even wanted to go to Halong, a bay of 1,969 limestone karsts that were recently added to the Wonders of the World list. It seemed so packaged and artificial, and we hate going to places because you’re supposed to go to them. On top of that, trying to figure out the right company to go with made our heads spin. Too many options! Too much negotiation!
It may seem completely boring to tell you the details of how we decided to go about seeing the islands, but the process ranks high on my — and many others’ — travel annoyances list, so hopefully it’s helpful to some of you.
After much back and forth between ourselves and Travelfish — the best SE Asia guide out there — that it’s touristy but still worth it, we thought, let’s do this. Ideally, we wanted to visit the Bay on our own since we both hate being herded like cattle from stop to stop, being told when to eat and when to take pictures. But that trailblazer attitude was short-lived beacuse as it turns out, doing it independently meant more freedom, but also more stress in figuring out how to get from point A to point B and, in the end, the same cost. And take it from me, just do a tour. Your brain will thank you for it.
We shopped around with a few agents and after a frustrating day of not knowing what to do, we went with our gut and the agent we trusted most. She was a lovely Vietnamese girl, who was the only one who “got” us and understood our hesitation in seeing a sight so visited.
Then we had to pick a package.
Since we were never wed to the idea of Halong Bay, we took it as a sign that two days was more than enough. (The drive from Hanoi to Halong City, the port town to the bay, is about four hours, making a day trip much too rushed.) There are so many options to go along with it, like spending a night on Cat Ba Island or taking a cooking class on the boat. We’ve done the island thing but not the overnight boat thing, so we decided to keep it simple: a three-star boat with a private double room, sleeping onboard with all meals, no drinks, included. (I got vegetarian, no problem.) All in all, $70 after a little bargaining. We were OK with the price until we learned that some people on our boat paid $50. Groan.
Wasted money aside, the trip was lovely and I’m so glad we went because even though it’s the most-touted excursion in Vietnam, once you’re in the Bay, at least on a weekday, you feel totally alone.
But it wasn’t just that. It was the great mix of people on our tour, 14 in total, the food, the swim in the Bay, the kayaking and the crazy thunderstorm.
Our boat — neither here nor there.
Our room — ditto.
Our group: a mix of Malaysian, English, Korean, Vietnamese, Scottish and Irish by way of Singapore. Don’t let the Asian vs. Non-Asian table split fool you; we got on really well.
The food was delicious Vietnamese dishes and dessert was fresh fruit, like pineapple and lychee. There was always so much that we definitely couldn’t complain about being hungry.
We stopped at Surprising Cave, the only place where we experienced the fakeness we feared. It would’ve been a nice walk through the stalagmites if it weren’t lit up like Epcot Center with guides asking us which animals each of the formations looked like. Plus, the number of boats stationed at the cave dock — it looks like a garage slash construction site — made me queasy.
I was so happy when I realized that I could just sit, read and take in the view. I’m currently reading Catfish and Mandala, a true story by a Vietnamese-American who bicycles his way through Vietnam and rediscovers the country he fled during the War. I love reading a book based in the country I’m traveling in; kind of wish I thought of that earlier.
I mean, who DOESN’T smile like a freak when he/she is reading?
We also checked out one of the many floating villages, whose populations fish as their main source of income. It was cool to explore life at sea, in a vouyeuristic, I-feel-a-little-bad-for-taking-pictures-of-your-daily-life kind of way. But as Carrie Bradshaw would say, I got to thinking…where do the dogs go for a walk?
Despite the sunny forecast, we were witness to an awesome storm of thunder and insane bolts of lightning that cracked above the bay. It was such a cool experience and much more interesting than a plain old sunny boat ride. The half of the group that remained on the roofdeck (under an awning) got to watch the storm in all its splendor.
Once the storm passed, it was time to jump off the boat and into the Bay, whose waters were, if you can believe it, warm like a hot tub. I jumped only from the first level, but because Eaman now loves jumping off things, he also leaped from the second and third levels. I’m sure his mom is happy to hear that.
The sky was beautiful post-storm.
We certainly weren’t a party boat, but we did karaoke. It is Asia, after all. But as much fun as we had, I don’t think we could top our guide Hoa’s enthusiasm and commitment. Unlike us, she could actually sing.
Day 2 was mostly about getting back to shore — not without some kayaking first. It was a great way to see the caves from a new perspective and remind me that all the tourist crap was worth it to get to that beautiful vantage point. Definitely one of those, “Where am I on a map of the world today?” moments.
Also, Eaman was clearly working hard during the kayaking.