Vietnam | Halong Bay: November 15-19, 2008

Hanoi - Enroute to Halong Bay

November 15th, 2008

The flight today to Hanoi was uneventful, however had to wait more than an hour to get our entry VISAs! We even discovered that we didn’t have to apply for another VISA entirely, instead could have gotten an additional entry stamp on the VISA we already had from our earlier entry at Ho Chi Minh City. Shucks! But not a big deal either. The cab ride was a long one since the airport was quite far away from town. At the Hanoi Old Quarter hotel, we were quite impressed by our room! They had upgraded us to a suite that had some swanky 70’s style, red couches and a massive TV! It was a neat set-up and the bathrooms had some really neat faucet fixtures and even a functional bidet in the toilet. We were staying at the Old Quarter of Hanoi, a fave tourist destination here. We weren’t all that keen on exploring yet another large Vietnamese city, since we were mostly back to check out Halong Bay. We arranged with the front desk for a cab to our hotel there and even booked an additional night here on our return from Halong Bay.

Halong Bay

November 16th, 2008

Today, our cab arrived early enough. The driver was from the hotel and spoke no English. The car was a small, dinky car that barely fit all our backpacks and laptop bags. The drive out of the way showed us a bit more of Hanoi, which seemed a ‘bit’ less chaotic and better organized than Saigon. The river here was also wider and seemed cleaner, this being the Red River. The ride was a good three hours long, and on the way, we passed by several villages and close calls with fast-moving buses and trucks.


We picked up some baguettes along the way, even though these were a lot harder than we would’ve liked. Still, as we approached Haiphong – the major city near the bay – we started to glimpse some of the limestone karsts (islets) that were peppering the horizon a good distance away. The sight of them got us quite excited and we were quite eager to check them all out up close. Apparently, there are thousands of these littered all over this bay, a World Heritage Site.

We finally arrived at our hotel, the newly built Novotel. It was a bit out of our budget, but we decided to treat ourselves anyway. We’d never return to Halong Bay, and the other hotels left a lot to be

desired. Not wanting to feel down about our ‘home’ here, we chose the Novotel. It was a really funky place, the décor actually matching the photos on the site! That’s a first for sure! It was clean, modern, and efficient. The staff was really helpful and courteous, really going to show how far money does go in this world! Our room was simply superb, immaculately clean and wicked fixtures in the bathroom. Plus they had satchels of Karthik’s favourite Vietnamese coffee. And what a view! The front desk people were nice enough to upgrade our room to one facing the bay. We could see the islets in the far distance and the entire bay in full view, with cruise ships and junk boats coursing about.

We just spent the rest of the day chilling about and Karthik went out to the local supermarket to buy some groceries and such. When stepping out to get a taxi, some guy asked him if he wanted a motorcycle ride there. Karthik thought why not as it was also cheaper. Chalk up another mode of transportation! At the supermarket, it actually wasn’t one building but a collection of many vendors and stalls. It took a while to find the guy that sold bread; the guy who sold water; and the guy who sold sweet stuff. It was a fairly large market and vendors were selling everything from t-shirts and souvenirs to meat and vegetables as well. Interesting in all, Karthik took another motorcycle ride back to the hotel. We then ordered some room service, which turned out to be quite good in fact. We plan on having our dinner here, seeing as there’s not too many restaurant options nearby and most of which being seafood joints. Next two days are just for exploring the bay by boat and we plan on going to the wharf and check out our own options. The tours offered by the hotel are just too expensive, but at least we know what to check out.

November 17th, 2008

We woke up early enough this morning to make the most of the daylight. The hotel offers free breakfast, so we thought we’d check it out, hoping to fill ourselves for the day. We were totally taken aback by the buffet breakfast being offered. There were just SOO many options available; this totally kicks the behind of the breakfast we had at the hotel in Joao Pessoa, Brazil. Everything was neatly arranged and well presented, from local cuisine to baked goods to fruits to hot foods to juices to cereals and on and on. It was wicked! We totally filled up, having seconds and thirds till our bellies cried no more. We’re totally going to be regulars here for breakfast, normally having skipped free breakfasts being offered by hotels. Now all full up, we took a taxi to the “Tourist Wharf.” All the boats going off to the bay left from here, so we thought we could find one to rent for a few hours.

We went inside the main ticket office where there were many tour options displayed, from 4 hour trips to 8 hour trips covering the various islands, caves, beaches, and grottoes sprinkled around the bay. As we were considering our options, this lady came up to us and started insisting we go on her boat and she’d offer a good price. The rates were fairly reasonable to begin with, but at least she spoke English and had a boat ready to go. It wasn’t like there were other boat operators clamouring for our attention (and money). We opted for a four hour tour on this lady’s boat that would go up to the Thien Cung Grotto and Dau Go Cave and round about the floating village and return while passing some interesting limestone island formations. These were some of the sights on the tour that the hotel offered, and the rate was good here, so we thought why not.

We got aboard a large-ish boat that had two decks, the bottom deck having comfy sofas and windows while the upper deck was just a large, well… deck. There were some lawn chairs on it, however, and since the sun was out in full, we thought that’s where we should make our home. For all intents and purposes, other than the captain and his helper, we had the boat entirely to ourselves. It was a sweet deal – we laid out the lawn chair near the front of the boat and just started to take in the scenery. Ours was a regular tourist boat, however on the bay, we saw others: junk boats, cruise ships, canoes, and so on. The junk boats were fashioned in the typical Chinese style and also included onboard restaurants and cabins to sleep in. We were happy enough to be staying at the Novotel! As we left the wharf behind, we began to notice the islands far away in the mist beginning to take shape. The slight haze gave way to proper rock formations and individual islands could be differentiated. As we got closer, we could begin to see just how many islands there were! It was a mind-blowing sight! We could spot dozens just from where we were, ALL around us and far away into the horizon. We were really in good spirits as we were finally cruising in Halong Bay and about to explore in and around the many islands dotting this landscape.

We were now approaching a large island with a sort of opening or lagoon within. As we drew further into this little island, we could see that the island was a fairly large one and covered in greenery. These islands, although looking bare from far, were actually quite lush. The boat pulled into the small harbor and the captain pointed us in the direction of the Grotto, after which would be a path to the Cave. It was a fair distance up a long shaded path consisting of innumerable stairs to the entrance of the Thien Cung Grotto, and all we knew about the place was that it’d be quite a sight inside. Penny was a bit afraid; given it was a cave environment. We finally made it up to the entrance and Karthik decided to check it out first. He was immediately amazed and assured Penny that it’d be safe since the narrow opening led to a large cavern inside. And what a cavern!

Inside was a truly alien landscape that reminded us of the Moon Valley in La Paz, Bolivia. Only here it was all entirely inside a large cavern and lit up with multi-coloured lights. There were outcroppings of all shapes and sizes; ones extending from the ground and the ceiling and those that formed whole pillars. Also, since this was all shaped by water, there were the strangest, mushroom-like, fanned fringes on some rocks. As well, some of the outcroppings hanging from the ceiling were like large, frilly, wave-like curtains. The cavern itself was a really large space that had a marked trail to go through. At one point, we even saw a small, natural fountain illuminated inside a smaller grotto. We wandered around leisurely since being in here was just too magical! Eventually, we had to proceed out of here. We headed off to the Dau Go Cave and see what it was all about. The way there was not quite as labourious and we got to see glimpses of the bay with the ships docked at the pier.

As we got to the Dau Go Cave, we had to climb a rickety old set of stairs that felt like they could give way any second. They then led down and into a massive cavern that opened up into the world. There was no small opening or fancy-coloured lights or any of the crazy, alien structures of the previous grotto. However, what it lacked in those features, this cave made up in sheer size and number of outcroppings and rocks. Although the scene was entirely a dull, brown colour, the whole cave was like a huge Play-Doh set gone wild. It seemed like all sorts of shapes were jutting out from everywhere while massive columns rose up to the ceiling from the ground. We were again following a set path, sometimes going through narrow openings and brief tunnels. As we went further and further in, Penny started to panic a little bit. We were unable to see the outside opening and in making our way inwards, Penny finally drew the line and said she’d be heading back to the entrance. Karthik didn’t make it much further after that, not caring to explore much on his own. Besides, the rest inside looked like much the same we’d seen on the way and the impressive part was the cave near the huge opening.

We were both heading back out now and being quite tired and thirsty; we wanted to just get back to our boat, especially since we’d left our water bottle there. Doh! We got down to the pier and found our boat a fair distance from where it dropped us off. We were thirsty, so we boarded and hurried up to our upper deck, almost downing an entire bottle of water! We were feeling better and satisfied with our cave/grotto visit. Now it was off to more exploring! The boat pulled out and started its way around this island off to the other side. As we rounded about the island, the captain called our attention to a peculiar-shaped rock outcropping. It was shaped like a dog! It really was. Interesting for sure and hopefully entirely natural!

We were now in a large expanse of water within the bay surrounded by dozens of islands. The way ahead was clear, however on our left and right were large, looming islands as if to make a sort of valley of water which we were sailing on. We then came upon a floating village consisting of several houses and shops on makeshift piers just… well, floating about. The locals were just wandering about on their little canoes and going about their business, as if entirely used to the large tourist boats crowding their existence. We continued further through this 'valley’ and out into an opening. Just further up and around were TONS more islands, elusively close. We were really keen on going further and between them – there were just so many of them, ranging in size and height. It was a crazy sight to be sure, only to be found here in Halong Bay! However, our captain kept a good distance from this collection of islands and instead veered left and onwards into open water again. It somehow seemed like we were heading back.

We weren’t too sure until we could then see one side of the main island we visited the cave/grotto in and in the far distance, the town itself. The captain then informed us in sign-language that we’re heading back. As well, he gestured to point out another interesting formation – a ‘pair’ of small islands, rocks really, that were tantalizingly close to each other. This was apparently named “the fighting cocks.” Go figure! They resembled nothing like roosters! Quite bummed about heading back and not exploring further, we were just feeling low. The weather was perfect and all those islands were just so close! However, it wasn’t to be today. It would seem that our 4-hour tour was to be done in just over 3 hours, calculating the time it’d take to head back to the wharf.

We somehow pulled together some positivity for having seen what we did see and planned to go on a longer tour tomorrow that involved going into the bay further. The rest of the boat ride back was uneventful and we just wanted to get back to our hotel and do further research on optimal boat routes within the bay. We just had one more day here!

Back home, we ordered room service again and were pleased with the options. We caught up on some downloaded shows and chilled this evening. Outside, it got pretty loud later in the evening. There’s a large park facing the hotel, which also has a bunch of performance stages. On one of them, they were doing some sort of traditional dance while the other was a ‘water puppet’ theater show – something Vietnam is apparently known for. Meh! Maybe tomorrow we’ll check it out. We did our research and even drew a crude route on a piece of paper, highlighting the must-see places and the ideal route that’d go through a lot of islands. We hope to do this tomorrow. Now we’re off to bed!

November 18th, 2008

Got up again to avail ourselves of a wonderful Novotel breakfast! We filled up yet again, sampling a slightly different menu this morning. Filling up again felt good – Novotel kicks ass! So after getting ready, we thought we’d follow the same formula today as well – going to the Wharf and try our luck with some boat owner. So, what actually happened was that on our way out, one of the managers at the hotel stopped us. He asked us if we had a tour booked or not. We told him what we had in mind, telling him about the places we wanted to visit. He said he could get us a much lower rate than what we paid yesterday, which was surprising since we thought we had a great deal.

So he called someone and asked us to wait for them to come pick us up. So this lady came in a taxi and took us to the Wharf. She spoke no English, so it was hard for us to confirm exactly where her boat was going to take us. At the Wharf, we ran into the same lady that booked us the boat yesterday. We also had in mind to complain to her about the fact that the trip yesterday was much shorter than what we were promised. But, first things first. Since ‘our lady’ spoke English, we asked her to ask the new lady where exactly her boat was going to take us. We also told her where we wanted to go today. But, of course, our lady also wanted our business, so she got her associate in on the conversation and also asked her if she can take us instead. Then, we were getting all boiled up and frustrated, since we just wanted to go on a simple trip and not waste time with all this nonsense!

By this time, the new lady was getting all upset and called our hotel’s manager. He, in the spirit of making things better, only made it more confusing by insisting he come to the Wharf too and clear things up. By this time, we just wanted to go with our lady and take the boat for our trip. Most of all, we just weren’t able to confirm where exactly the new lady’s boat was going to go that day or even if it was to be shared with other tourists or if it was private. So, the manager arrived and wanted to get involved. He confirmed that the new lady’s boat was actually a shared one and would actually go to some of the spots we already had seen yesterday. He then told our lady the lower rate he promised for our trip today and asked if she could match it. She accepted and then FINALLY we were off. We suppose that he did ultimately get us a cheaper rate, but what with the delay and all the pulling of teeth and hair, dunno if it was worth it! Still… we were happy that we were finally off.

We were re-united with yesterday’s boat and the same captain and deck-hand. Also in our boat today was an older couple. They confined themselves to the lower deck while we made our home on the upper deck again. The day was a cloudy one, so the islands were shrouded in mists. Being on the upper deck felt a bit brisk since the sun was beaming intermittently, but we were in high spirits. We were on our ‘own trip’ visiting the spots we wanted to. We were going to go further in and see the islands up close. And so the journey to get there was a bit lengthier. As we passed the point we went up to on our trip yesterday, the boat veered left and headed further towards more islands slowly coming into view from the distant haze. The islands came closer and the numbers increased. So did the “layers”! We could now see so many islands in the distance now, separated into various layers as if in a painting, islands in the foreground and islands in the background and in between. It was a crazy out-of-a-postcard sight! Then a big island began to appear not far away, and there was a small ‘hut’ at the top. It seemed like we were making our way there.

This was Titop Island, one of our destinations today. There were several boats and junks making their way there, and as we passed it by without slowing down, it seemed like we were actually headed elsewhere. We asked the captain who said we were first going to the Sung Sot Caves. As we passed Titop Island, it seemed like a festive place and we could make out a small beach, a bar, and tons of tourists lining the shore. But now on to Sung Sot Cave first. At this point, we were surrounded by dozens of islands! It was just too much and we went trigger happy! Our boat went further in and we then passed between two tall islands… and then what we saw was magical!! We came upon what looked like a placid lake or lagoon in the midst of the sea. Around us were tall, cliff-like islands, green and lush. The water was like blue-green glass! Small canoes were making their way around the area, with the occupants wearing the typical conical hats! It was too cool! We could see our destination, Sung Sot Cave, in the distance, as well as the port where we’d be embarking at. It was a large island, where to the left, was a small outcropping that resembled an elephant trunk. The whole island was green and in the middle was a small grotto where the caves were.

But before that, the boat pulled over and docked at a small makeshift set of floating pontoons, on which were some small houses. It was the sort of set-up the floating villages would use, except here it was a seafood restaurant that also had kayaks for hire. Since the water here was so calm, some tourists hire these kayaks to go exploring between the islands. We were up for neither kayaking nor eating fish, so we informed the captain that we could be on our way. We finally docked at Sung Sot Island and got off the boat. We looked back and just drank in the picture-perfect sight! This was the image that makes Halong Bay the world-famous site it is… the calm, placid body of water surrounded by several tall islands. But, we couldn’t dilly-dally here all day, so walked up another set of tree-ringed steps like the one yesterday to the Thien Cung Grotto. Along the path, we stopped to take in the sight of the Bay again, here and there. At the entrance to the caves, it seemed like a mix of the two caves we visited yesterday. Behind us, the older couple from our boat followed us – the only companions into the cave. The cave again was a mish-mash of crazy, water-carved outcroppings, hanging rocks, and pillars jutting from the floor. One portion of the ceiling looked like a series of water droplets had been falling for decades, causing a bunch of ‘puckered’ indents. Here too were a whole bunch of multi-colored lights adding to the overall effect. There was a long path to follow, but thankfully was a large enough cavern for us to not wander off too much further in and still have the entrance in sight.

In the centre of the cave was a massive pillar of stalactites and stalagmites, outcroppings that jut out from the ceiling and also from the floor, all clumped together like some kid gone crazy with silly putty. And ahem… there was another ‘interesting’ formation that was, well… sticking out! It was why they also called this the “Surprise Cave.” It was a total Phallus! Crazy stuff indeed! We finally walked back out of the caves and went down the path to our boat. We left and went back the way we came towards the Titop Island. This ‘lagoon’ was just too much to get over – it was just the most beautiful place in the world! To see the locals in their boats and imagine their lives – hard as it must be, just think of where they call home! Anyhow, our boat finally arrived at the Titop Island. We got off and walked along the beach. Despite the cold, some brave tourists were actually going for a dip in the Bay! Nearby, there was a bar playing some loud club music while tourists drank it up. We went around looking for the stairs that led to the top of the mountain on the island, where the ‘hut’ was. It was actually a lookout point that afforded the best views of the surrounding bay and islands. It was a lengthy climb, but we managed to get ourselves to the top of Titop eventually. There, our breath was collectively taken away!! All around us were as many islands as numbers we knew of. All shapes, all sizes, and all formations. Layers and layers of islands. It was wicked!

We set up our tripod and went trigger-happy again. We could now see all the tourist boats, junks, and cruise ships spotting the bay below. Some of them – the junkboats – were unfurling their sails. It was a pretty sight. Even though it was hazy on account of being a cloudy, it was an amazing sight. We just didn’t want to leave. Several tourist groups came and left, but we stuck around as much as we could. Eventually, we had to pry ourselves back down. Along the way, we took several more photos of the bay and the islands. Penny found an island she dubbed the “Shark Fin Island” since it looked exactly like a shark’s fin protruding from the surface. It was her favourite, so it was snapped up many a time. We made it back down and having finished up our water, we looked around for someone selling some H2O. There was an old woman sporting a conical hat on her boat that was docked at the shore, selling all sorts of stuff. We bought some water and took some pictures of her, since she was just so cute and “authentic”! We went back on the boat and now were just killing some time, chugging around the many islands in this area, since we had booked the boat for a good six hours today.

We were just admiring the scenery and taking in all the islands coming into and going out of view. There were just a remarkable number of them here. Some of them looked like faces lying on their side, while others resembled some vague animal shapes, while not doing so anymore when viewed from another angle. We just felt incredibly lucky to have made it here and experiencing all this. Although the sun was setting and it was getting chilly, we couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. As we made our way back slowly to town, the sun was going down to our left. It made for a beautiful sky while being hidden from view here and there, as we passed islands of varying height. We were now getting closer to port and it was getting really chilly. We went down to the lower deck and decided to stick around to get warm. But it was just too depressing here. The older couple had already fallen asleep, while all the windows were shut. It seemed like we were now just trapped here, while all the beautiful landscape passed us by in an impersonal way.

We went back upstairs and decided to brave it till we touched port. We eventually got back and now had to pay the captain. We were short of some cash, so Karthik hopped on a motorcycle taxi outside the wharf and got some moola. We paid the captain and took a cab back. Now we were quite tired and cold, so home sounded really good. We just chilled (rather we stayed warm) that night and ordered room service again. We are heading back to Hanoi the next day by cab, having called our hotel there to send us one at noon.

November 19th, 2008

Left for Hanoi after a heft breakfast again at Novotel… well, not right after. The cab we had arranged with our hotel in Hanoi just didn’t show! We kept calling and they kept making some excuses about traffic etc.! Finally, some kid showed up in a car to take us back. It completely seemed like they forgot about sending a car to Halong Bay to pick us up and then arranged with some nearby cab operator to come get us in a hurry. Enh! Just the way crap works here. We were back and on the way, we heard the kid blast some cool club tracks in the car. We thought that was quite cool and so Penny started contemplating if we could share some of our electronic/club tracks with him. We didn’t have enough blank CDs, so we asked him to stop by somewhere to pick a few up. On the way to Hanoi, we burnt a few CDs on our laptop and gave it to him to listen. We started listening to them and it seemed like he was enjoying it! This felt good, cuz we think he’ll share them with this friends, but not before looking ‘extra-cool’ for having these tracks… or maybe not at all. But we can hope for his sake, right?!

So we finally got back to our Old Quarter Hotel. We stayed in and ordered some take-out Indian food. The room again was interesting in its decor, and resembled the previous one we stayed at this hotel. We like this place... totally unique! Tomorrow we head off to Thailand, with a good month planned to spend there.

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