Since I'm currently working at a university in China, I get the Chinese New Year off! That's SIX WEEKS of holiday time. I'll take it :) Being already in the Eastern hemisphere, and with so much time to kill, my roommate and I decided to take a month and visit some sights in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Enjoy the eighth installment of that decision involving Ha Long Bay, Vietnam:
Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay is one of the most visited places in Vietnam. It's in the north, about a 4-5 hour bus ride east from Hanoi. Due to our limited time and the plethora of options, we went ahead and booked a 3-day & 2-night tour ($75, meals included) that included one night in a hotel on Cat Ba Island and one night on a boat in Ha Long Bay. No shame in going full-on tourist sometimes.
A bus picked us up at our hostel in Hanoi and drove us to a row of boats on the bay. We waited around for our boat to be ready, and then boarded to enjoy a late lunch as we cruised towards the beautiful limestone rocks the bay is famous for. It makes you think of Pirates of the Caribbean right?? As part of the tour, we stopped at Thien Cun cave. It's the kind that's got a paved walkway and colored lights. Caves always pluck that little string in my heart that is tightly tied to the place my family is stored. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of the times we found caves during weekend camping trips. We watched the sunset over the bay from the boat before we were taken to Cat Ba island for the night. Sub-par hotel, but warm shower. You win some, you lose some.
Our second morning we woke up on the island and were driven to the national park for a couple hours of trekking. That was a lot of fun, because we weren't guided, we were just let free to do as we pleased. I love climbing around, even if I'm a bit out of shape and am usually the slowest and reddest one. The feeling of accomplishment at the top is like none other. I guess that can be a mataphor for life too: The summit is always worth the effort.
The rest of the day was "free time" which in tour speak means "we don't know what else to do with you." We hung out with these guys, trying to keep warm around cups of strong Vietnamese coffee (or in the case of me and the British guy, bitter Jasmine tea).
In the late afternoon we were driven back to the boat for dinner. By this time it was getting pretty cold and a bit misty so the sunset was less spectacular than the day before. But again, the conversation was good so can't complain!
The next morning we went kayaking for a bit, which is always fun. We didn't go too crazy, because it was still cold and we were pretty averse to getting wet.
We had lunch on the boat, and a pretty wild drive back to Hanoi. By wild I mean our driver got pulled over and I can only assume it had something to do with his speed and recklessness. We think he just paid off the official though and off we went again.
We were really, really happy we went to Ha Long Bay, and we were overall pretty satisfied with having booked a tour. Some notes on the tour experience:
- On the one hand, it pays to shop around. There were several people we met on the SAME tour or even on 2-day & 1-night tour that paid more than us.
- On the other, in some instances you may pay for what you get. Our guides were not friendly, our accommodations were not the most luxurious, and our food was not varied among the meals very much.
- Northern Vietnam in February can be pretty cold. Bring a hefty jacket.
- The in-between activity time can be a bit dull without good company. Bring a book.
- Your company will likely change. The mix of tourists changed from our first boat, to Cat Ba, to our second boat. That was fine by us though. We met some great people, as always!
All that being said, if you find yourself in Vietnam you really can't miss Ha Long Bay! If you like nature and hiking, Cat Ba is worth a visit too. There's a reason the area is so popular :)