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.
This is the first photo I took of the bay.
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:
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.
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.
While waiting for our tender to return us to the boat, Louis played the Vietnamese version of "keepie-uppie" with some locals:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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!
Food and Fun
TripAdvisor.com 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.
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.
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!