Up early, we breakfasted and were on a minibus heading for Halong Bay by 8am. We left half our luggage at the hotel, we were going on the Indochina three day two night trip. The minibus journey from Hanoi to Halong Bay is a bumpy boring four hour trek. En route we picked up Germans Isabelle and Manuel, and Richard and Rochelle from Australia; two couples we’d spend the next three days with.
At the midpoint, two hours in, there’s an obligatory toilet stop, amongst a touristy service station complete with disabled textiles workshop and huge expensive stone carvings available for international shipping. There’s various other Vietnam souvenirs too. Surely a commission deal going on here.
Passing through the industrial zone of Haiphong, we filled the time talking about University, education systems and all those grand national systems that differ from country to country. We passed large Foxconn and Canon electronics factories and in the distance limestone karsts were rising from the horizon.
The Indochina port is slightly beyond Halong, and to reach it you cross a modern suspension bridge that divulges gorgeous views of the bay. This place is something otherworldly.
We chose Indochina based on its positive trip advisor reviews and promised quietness in an area of the bay away from the hundreds of other tourist junks. Its exclusivity in the bay and high quality comes at a price. The duration of the trip was also difficult to decide; one night, two nights? The trip from Hanoi is so arduous we opted for a longer time on the boat.
At the port we met the third and final couple to join us, Richard and Sue, from the UK but more immediately from a trip to Hong Kong. And of course our guide for the duration, “Ha”, “as in ha ha ha”, he told us. He asked for our dietary requirements, “no cat or dog?”, awkward sense of humour this guy has.
He led us to our boat. The beautiful wooden boat with great red sails, as seen on the website, is no more. A government decree has forced all tourist boats to be painted white, and now they all look the same. Our boat is the Prince III, III for 3day2night, that’s one word in Ha’s vocabulary. It’s a large wooden affair, with four double rooms, a mast, an upper deck, some sun loungers and a bar area.
At the bar we sit down, sip our complimentary cocktails and listen to Ha’s introduction. He introduces the staff; a barman, chef, waiter, captain and engineer — they enter in procession, clapping loudly. Our captain speaks to us in Vietnamese, he wishes us a happy time on board.
The boat raises anchor and we’re off, Ha points to the map and shows us where we’re heading; an hour or so journey south east, to Bai Tu Long.
We were in room two, and our key was adorned with a large wooden dolphin. From the narrow corridor we entered, we had a double bed with beautiful Vietnamese linen (which we then tried to find and buy in Hanoi, but without much luck), storage cupboards, air conditioning and two windows that look out across the bay. We even had a private bathroom, with shower. Sam was most excited about the bathroom porthole, “it’s a proper porthole, it even opens”.
Time for lunch, and we gathered in the bar area. Food, all inclusive, was served on shared platters; chicken, cucumber and sesame salad, huge king prawns, pippis with chilli, and so on. All very tasty and plentiful. Halida beer was our preferred drinks choice, and, at times, it was drunk so fast the cans stopped being chilled.
We sailed for about an hour, on calm waters, the sky a little overcast. We sat up top on wooden outdoor furniture, and with my iPad I wrote about our cave trip. Trekking through a cave is notoriously difficult to describe. This was perfectly relaxing, no cares in the world, a beautiful changing landscape and a cool breeze. Limestone peaks would pass by, occasionally revealing, through a small peek hole, a secret lagoon. There were remnants of caves too, and huge outdoor stalactites. The waves brushed against the foot of the peaks, gently eroding them, and cutting away at the bottom, so as to leave them leaning precariously.
Soon there were no other boats in sight, and the mainland was hidden from us. Just the gentle chug of the boat, splashing of the waves, a few coves and bays and the occasional tiny deserted beach.
Time for a little physical exertion, and another opportunity to go kayaking. In our swim wear we climbed down the side of the boat, into our orange kayak, me in front and Sam at the rear. With our two ended oars we set off. We think we know how to do this … though actually we don’t. But we remain civil, avoid arguments and Ha explains how to steer and maintain momentum.
The route took us out and around H. Cap La. South east, then north, towards the open sea, and back around, along the edges of H. Ran. As inefficient as we were, our arms ached and, apart from the odd collision, mostly watched the group from behind. We stopped to watch a large Oriental Pied Hornbill in the treetops, as he danced about the foliage. We continued around to the boat, manoeuvred into position and made it in the end, about an hour of kayaking all in all, and quite enough for me.
We anchored there for the night, relaxed and prepared for dinner on the top deck, with Sam in her newly bought oriental Hoi An dress. More prawns and chicken salad; the differences between meals were subtle, but tasty nonetheless. I washed it down with a black russian cocktail.
A storm was rumbling out in the distance, and the night sky, black and cloudy without an orange hue, would light up with each burst of lightning. Young Richard, or more, younger Richard, the fireman, attempted to photograph this, but a rocking boat does not make a good tripod.
With Richard and Rochelle we saw out the night with a game of hearts and some Halida beers. Sam managed to get the highest score possible, 125, very impressive, though she was none too happy.