Saturday, January 10, 2015

Vietnam: Halong Bay

Every source or guidebook you will find about Hanoi strongly urges a trip to Halong Bay, a stunning example of the "Karst topography" of eroded limestone formations. It's a three hour drive from Hanoi, typically in a very comfortable Hyundai limosine bus. I met a guy who was quite happy with his one day jaunt, but there are are overnight and multi-night tours available. There is a massive variety of boats and organizers, so a fair amount of research is needed to find just what fits you.

I finally settled on the Monkey Island Resort two night, three day cruise, with one night on the boat anchored in the middle of the bay and one night (New Years Eve) in a beachfront bungalow on a private beach on Monkey Island, Catba. I liked the itinerary, the boat looked good, the island seemed nice, etc ... the only question mark was the food. Happily, I can report that each meal was delicious, plentiful, and different from the others.

Our guide, Noi, picked up the tour group from our hotels around 8 AM for the bus ride to Halong on the coast. We transferred to the boat in time to stow our gear in our cabins and assemble for lunch as the boat weighed anchor. There were fifteen of us, British, Belgian, Italian, Portuguese, Singaporean, Australian, etc. I was the only American.

The Cruise
Our boat:

 photo DSC_1404_zps47df4d15.jpg

This is the first photo I took of the bay.

 photo DSC_1362_zpsfcd92191.jpg

With an intro like that, how bad could it get? Here are a few shots taken that afternoon, evening and two mornings later, as we cruised back from Monkey Island:

 photo DSC_1374_zps4da27964.jpg
 photo DSC_1409_zps2a99a20c.jpg
 photo DSC_1490_zps17dff782.jpg
 photo DSC_1483_zpsc8164743.jpg
 photo DSC_1416_zps2db971be.jpg
 photo DSC_1460_zps8f2cc141.jpg

I did spend some time reading, but I had this photo staged. I occasionally like to use a photo of myself in PPTs at school, so I got one for "I am reading a book" to replace or augment the one I've been using from my Bali trip a few years ago.

 photo DSC_1414_zps5b8b432d.jpg

Dong Thien Cung
AKA Heaven Cave, this massive cave (a fine exemplar of Karst caves) was discovered in 1995. Opened to the public in 1997, it is quite commercialized, very busy, and has cement steps and stairs, as well as a natural fountain and penguin(?)-shaped trash receptacles.

 photo DSC_1377_zps08bd9dd6.jpg
 photo DSC_1383_zps6d82770c.jpg
 photo DSC_1389_zpsa14d855c.jpg
 photo DSC_1385_zps4e60f539.jpg

While waiting for our tender to return us to the boat, Louis played the Vietnamese version of "keepie-uppie" with some locals:

 photo DSC_1396_zpsaf313df7.jpg

The name of the cave means "Heaven Cave", but sadly, our guide had little to say about the factual matters of how the cave was formed, instead pointing out little features that resembled things, like "You can see Buddha Rock" or "This is the Octopus". Me, I saw a duckie and a fishie.

Floating village
The tour literature promised a "visit" to a floating village. I thought this meant an actual visit, like walking among, buying souvenirs, or something. The biggest (or practically only) disappointment of the trip was that it really only meant a cruise by in our tender. Twice. Here's a shot from the first one, in which I must say i look quite the adventurer:

 photo DSC_1434_zps49d9b510.jpg

We got a bit closer the second time alongside. You don't have to be too eagle-eyed to notice the satellite dishes. Sadly, their way of life is being ended, not just by the intrusion of modernity, but also by the government's decision that the floating villages exact too great a stress on the environment--all while thousands of tour boats (like, I'll grant you, the one I was on) provide at least as much pollution.

 photo DSC_1472_zps5d54aa74.jpg
 photo DSC_1471_zpseddcc2e4.jpg
 photo DSC_1467_zps408c8894.jpg
 photo DSC_1475_zps25b24006.jpg

Monkey Island Resort
On the second day, the boat docked at a harbor on Catba Island, and we were transferred to smaller boats which made their way between a couple of the majestic outcrops, around a bend, and then our beach came into view:

 photo DSC_1439_zps95228b52.jpg

A shaky disembarkation then a brisk walk to Reception where we were invited to a New Years Eve Party to begin at 9 PM. But first, check into our rooms, and have lunch. At three, you could hike over the mountain that comprised the island to meet some monkeys, or just lounge about--I chose the latter, finally getting into the latest (or perhaps sadly, last) of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels. I paid extra for the beachfront bungalow and truly enjoyed my spot and view throughout the day!

 photo DSC_1441_zpse8295c69.jpg
 photo DSC_1445_zpsd7d0ecc1.jpg
 photo DSC_1444_zpsd9daa82a.jpg
 photo DSC_1447_zpsd3d31d38.jpg

Food and Fun is a brilliant and useful website, and I am a regular contributor. This cruise and/or the resort have at this writing 178 reviews, with only 111 of them rated as excellent or very good. I read through them, focusing on the negatives of course, but discounted a number of them because they were quite petty. The biggest issue seemed to be the food quality or type. I can assure you that both type and quality of the food on board and on the island left nothing wanting!

Breakfast was not original or amazing, but I just want some eggs, bacon or sausage, toast and jam, and some coffee to help me wake up. Fine, but nothing to write home about. The other meals were simply great! Our first lunch on the boat had six courses, all of them delicious and properly prepared.

 photo DSC_1360_zpsa75998da.jpg

Dinner was another six course feast. The lunch that awaited us on the island was Vietnamese-style hot pot (similar to shabu shabu) with pork, chicken, squid, fish and veggies galore! Awesome.

 photo DSC_1449_zpsfa95f95b.jpg

I have to confess that our dinner that night was perhaps special, since it was New Years Eve--grilled oysters, pork, chicken, squid, etc, etc. For breakfast the next morning, I had an omelet cooked to order. Our last lunch, on the boat as we returned to Halong harbor: fresh sea bass, grilled to flaky perfection.

The piece de resistance, our New Years Eve Party: free wine was flowing, cakes, snacks, party games Vietnamese style, karaoke in the purpose-built hilltop building! It was a memorable evening. Joss and Liesl the Saffers, Hugo and Elvira, Olivier and Francesca, Vicki with whom I won the balloon blowing-up contest, the prizes, the Boss, the Brits, Noi getting drunk, the fireworks, Auld Lang Syne, more free wine, the crazy Indians at the karaoke ...

Halong Bay. Beautiful, unforgettable, possibly the best way to welcome in the year 2015. If you weren't there ... I wish you could have been!

No comments: