After traveling through Thailand and Cambodia for six weeks, non-stop almost every day, we were looking forward to a slower pace in Vietnam. We chose Hanoi to spend 10 days in with no agenda, no special activities, just relaxing. Well…Hanoi is not the place to relax. It is loud, congested, thick with smog, and completely chaotic. But we did decide to take a three-day cruise in Ha Long Bay, about a four hour drive from Hanoi. Many companies offer one-, two-, or three-day cruises on their “junk” boats of varying sizes.
Since we did a three-day cruise, we had our own cabin – which was nicer than most hotels we’ve stayed in. And we splurged and got a cabin with our own private balcony. You know, for the relaxing.
Our boat had twelve cabins but was only a little more than half full; there were about 15 of us on the boat. We shared most meals together there, met some wonderful folks, and the tour company offered “activities”: movie night where we watched an episode of Top Gear in which three cranky Brittish men attempt to drive across Vietnam on scooters, Tai Chi at sunrise, squid fishing at night, and a lesson on how to fashion flowers out of vegetables – a classic Vietnamese skill.
Ha Long Bay is apparently the thing to do in Vietnam and we can see why. Almost 2,000 limestone islets have been carved out over millions of years and what’s left is quite a sight. Ha Long means “descending dragon” because when you look out over the bay, you can envision a giant, undulating sea monster on its way down to the depths (or maybe up?).
The islands are all unique, some reach to the sky at impossible angles, some have visible caves that run clear through them, other have so much erosion at the water line they seem like they might topple over.
Ha Long Bay surprised us in many ways, and one of those was the weather. It was at least 10°-20°F cooler on the coast and grey, grey, grey.
We were bundled up the whole time and crossing our fingers for some sunny moments, which we got, perfectly timed, during our kayak trip on the last day.
On our first day, after the four hour drive to the docks, we ate lunch on our boat and then transferred to some smaller boats to tour the “floating village”. This consists of small floating houses used by the local fisherman. We later learned that the government is relocating some of these villagers to the mainland to decrease over-fishing and lessen the environmental impact from having people live on the water. They are given land and a home for free but often have trouble finding work, as their skills on the water don’t usually translate to skills on land. Sadly, you can often see pieces of trash floating in the water. And while the islands look distant and desolate, they usually all have some ropes hanging off of eye-level rocks for tying up fishing boats. This is a beautiful place, but definitely not untouched. It’s nice to see the Vietnamese government recognize that and I hope it translates into more environmentally-conscious regulations and restrictions for the junk boats, too.
The next day, we transferred to a smaller boat again and got a fishing lesson from one of the local families. They live on their boat, so it was a bit like being welcomed into their home. They cast their long net in a big circle in a shallow cove, then bang on the boat with wooden sticks to scare the fish into the nets. Sadly, we only caught one crab (we knew it was high tide, not a good time to fish), but it was a lot of fun.
After fishing, we had lunch and all six of us “three-dayers” took a long nap up on the top of our day boat. We were woken up by our tour guide an hour later: “We go kayaking now!”. Crazy man, I am wearing my winter coat. But we went and as soon as we sat down in the wet kayak, the sun came out. We kayaked through caves and by pristine, tiny beaches, saw some jellyfish and got harassed in a friendly way by some guys with a tiny motorboat. We didn’t bring our phones or camera, so we sadly couldn’t document it, but it was by far my favorite part of the trip.
We met back up with our junk boat at the Pearl Farm – a collection of floating buildings where pearls are harvested and sold. We got to watch a demonstration by one of the technicians inseminating an oyster (fascinating), and then were given a mature oyster to see if it had a pearl inside. Only 30% of them will come to have pearls – ours did!
On our third day, we explored a cavern on one of the islands. We climbed up and into this cave where local fisherman lived up until a few decades ago. It felt strange to be in a cave so high above sea-level.
Though it was splurgy and touristy, we loved our time on Ha Long Bay. We met some great people on our boat and were constantly in awe of the great, hulking masses around us.
One of my favorite moments was after dinner one night. I think Top Gear was still on so most people were in the dining room watching. I went up to the top deck to see if I could steal some quiet time and see some stars. Of course, it was mostly cloudy but as I continued to sit, a few stars popped out, then a few more. Soon the entire sky was cloud-free and star-filled. When my neck began hurting, I simply laid down on the empty wooden deck and stayed there for a good, long time. Nate came up the stairs and found me like this. We laid together, freezing but happy, and stared up at the bright stars in the dark, haunting bay.
Our final favorite thing about our cruise? Their Vietnamese coffee! Made with condensed milk and in old-school pour over fashion. We drank a lot of these! We ordered some while we were sorting out our tab and we noticed it was one beer short. Because we were honest they gave us yet another coffee on the house. I left with shaky hands and a happy heart.