Majestic and mysterious, inspiring and imperious, words alone cannot do justice to the natural marvel that is Halong Bay, a Unesco World Heritage site where 3000 or more incredible islands rise from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. The vegetation-covered islands are dotted with innumerable grottos created by the wind and the waves, and it is possible to kayak into hidden lagoons (Lonely Planet, 2010, p. 861).
The writers of Lonely Planet are definitely guilty of gushing at times, but in the case of Halong Bay, they are very much justified. It really is the kind of place that makes you want to compose poetry on the spot. We were dazzled.
Our trip to Halong Bay began with a three-hour bus ride from Hanoi to Halong City, which went by quickly thanks to the humour and friendliness of our guide, Mark. Along with a group of around 20 other tourists, we boarded the Elizabeth Sails, settled in our cabins, then ate lunch (and no, lunch wasn’t worth writing about!). It was a very overcast day, which was initially disappointing, but it didn’t take long for us to decide that Halong Bay really suits the misty look.
We then motored around the bay until we arrived at a popular spot for boats to stop. We were ferried over to an island, and climbed up a cliff to explore a massive cave – the biggest cave I’ve ever seen by far. The view from the cave mouth high up on the cliff was pretty spectacular. Dazzled some more.
After some kayaking in the bay, we re-boarded our boat and socialised while we waited for dinner (which was much better than lunch). After dinner the crew busted out the karaoke, which was absolutely hilarious for about 10 minutes, before the tinny music, cheesy video graphics and way-too-loud volume became overwhelming. Brave attempts to rescue the night were made by Marta and Bob, singing Lambada and About a Girl respectively, but high-pitched Vietnamese pop songs and painful Korean ballads soon dominated the scene. Those who weren’t driven to their cabins toughed it out on the top deck with the help of Bia Hanoi.
The next morning most guests returned to Hanoi, whereas the few who had paid for two nights (including us) were ferried to Cat Ba island. The day was grey and drizzly, but the island could not have looked more wild and beautiful. Around one-half of the entire island is a national park, and it was this unspoilt part that we cycled through for a couple of hours. Dazzled again.
After lunch at a hotel in Cat Ba town, we were driven across the island where we boarded another small boat and were taken out to Monkey Island, famous for, you guessed it, monkeys. The harbour we launched from had the most amazing floating village. It’s incredible to think that people live in these tiny floating houses, and have entire floating communities which even include floating banks, ATMs and schools.
Once we got the Monkey Island, the sun came out for the first time, transforming the bay into a tropical paradise.
But here’s where it started to go just a little bit wrong. We decided that we wanted to swim, and swimming involved first getting changed in some dodgy changing sheds that had no roofs, only netting over the top. The monkeys, for which Monkey Island is named, were frolicking over the top of said roofs, entertaining everyone with their antics, which included drinking beer from a can handed to them on a stick. We thought they looked adorable.
Not long after Colin and I went into one of the sheds, one of the small monkeys came over to peer in at us, looking in very intently…with crazy eyes…it soon started to chew the netting and beat against it…we didn’t want to make eye-contact…soon we heard a soft splattering sound…yes, that’s right, the little fucker tried to pee on us…the situation went from bad to worse when two bigger monkeys came over and started chewing as well…we didn’t know how we were going to get out of that shed.
We eventually were able to make a run for the beach when the monkeys were distracted by a few people laughing. We sprinted for the water to wash off the smell of monkey pee and humiliation. A pleasant hour was then spent wallowing in the sea and air-drying in the sun.
After a drive back across the Island to drop off most of the guests who were overnighting on the Island, those who remained (Colin, Marta and I) caught a lovely sunset, before boarding the boat for our second night on the Bay.
Here’s where it began to go a lot wrong. Although we had booked two nights on the Elizabeth Sails, we were transferred to the Golden Lotus for some reason that we could never figure out. We were mollified by the promise that the Golden Lotus was a better boat, and indeed, our cabin was slightly larger and the food was slightly better. But the crew seemed a bit unfriendly, and the new tour guide made no attempt to talk to us, or integrate us into the group of tourists already on the boat. Anyway, dinner proceeded nicely, apart from the predilection of the staff to remove food and drinks before you were finished with them. But still, no big deal.
When we retired to our cabin though…we were greeted by a swarm of cockroaches on our bed (ok, maybe 20), and when we looked more closely, we realised they were all through our bags, which we had opened earlier. Now we had seen the occasional cockroach on the first boat, but it was quite obvious that the Golden Lotus had a serious infestation. Controlling our (my) hysteria, we called the crew, who sincerely thanked us for bringing the matter to their attention because it meant they could get the boat fumigated. We were provided with a can of spray (which seemed to be just perfumed air freshener), and left to sort out our room and settle down for the night (ekkkk, this involved spraying multiple rings of spray around the bed and bed frame!).
The next morning we had one more little adventure: at 8.30am we were asked to check out of our cabin (i.e. get our bags out). Exactly two minutes later we were asked to check out again, then 30 seconds later, we were told to check out, then 10 seconds later, the crew demanded that we get out now! As most people know, Colin isn’t known for his patience. He was inspired to have a few serious words with the offending crew member, who, quite sensibly, backed down and gave us five more minutes to shake the cockroaches out of our clothes.
So our trip to Halong Bay ended up being a bit paradoxical – it’s the most amazing and beautiful place, but it’s a tour-factory. The crew care most about getting you off the boat as quickly as possible so that they can load another lot of guests on. Fumigation? I don’t think so somehow…