Week and a Half in Vietnam Starts with a World-class Sight
06/24/2014 - 06/25/2014 86 °F
Sunset on Ha Long Bay
It is peaceful, now. I'm sitting on the top deck of my boat looking out over the calm waters of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. A breeze lessens the stuffy humidity as I listen to the whir of cicadas and the distant chugging of a motorboat fading away into the distance. The waters are a jade green, deeper in the shadows of the massive limestone islands called karsts, which jut up all around the bay. Each karst looks like the rounded, jungle-clad peak of a mountain looming tall above the waters. Where vegetation hasn't sprouted, it's exposed stone faces are a mix of khaki, gray, and dark cracks rippling across their surface. The other six passengers, Aussies and Irish --guarantors of an enjoyable time, are still sleeping off yesterday's fun. Several of the crew silently practice tai chi on the deck, their graceful movements seemingly in harmony with the scenic beauty all around. The smells of breakfast drift up to me and I remember yesterday's sumptuous meals, as we were plied with more and more exquisite food until we could take no more.
Although there are plenty of peaceful moments, you are never too far from other cruise ships on Ha Long Bay
It isn't food that draws travelers to Ha Long Bay, though. The striking beauty of the wide green expanses of water, dotted with almost 2,000 jungle-clad islands, summons millions from around the globe each year to Vietnam. The scenery prompted UNESCO to declare it a world heritage site in 1994. The seven of us (all of us backpackers at heart) arrived on the boat yesterday around noon, and were wowed by the accommodations, which were luxury class. We had the added bonus of a more than half-empty boat, so the crew of the Marguerite Garden was waiting with a smile whenever your drink was empty or you needed anything. I'd booked my cruise on the internet through Halong Best Cruises (www.halongbestcruises.com). They were quick and responsive to all my questions and requests. I paid a deposit for my cruise through a web invoice, and after the cruise was over, I paid the balance when I was dropped off at my hotel in Hanoi.
Our cruise ship, the Marguerite Garden
Our guide, Tien, entertained us with stories and information from Vietnam's past on the four-hour minivan shuttle from our hotels to the dock. He taught us a little formula he'd created to remember the different phases of Vietnam's history. He was flexible with our schedule, too, adding more to our itinerary due to our small group. He wanted to make sure we enjoyed ourselves first, and worried about how much time we were taking second. I'd read reviews on the internet about Ha Long Bay guides who barked at passengers if they strayed from their side. Tien was the opposite, and laid back. He saw that we were all experienced travelers who didn't need hand holding. In my case, that meant he never frowned when I often lagged behind while taking dozens of photos of the gorgeous views. He was always waiting with a smile on his face, catching me up on anything I may have missed. Later, he and I discussed history, and he seemed genuinely interested in tips from a teacher on how to make the past more relevant and interesting to his groups.
Close up of the limestone karsts that make the scenery of Ha Long Bay so special
My cabin aboard the Marguerite Garden was sparkling, spacious, and more than you could ask for aboard a relevantly small ship.I had windows that looked out on both sides of the ship, the most comfortable bed I've had yet on this trip, and a super-clean and cool-looking bathroom that exceeded Western standards. The air conditioning was cranking when I arrived, and it was a welcome blast of comfort in the muggy afternoon. Since it was only a two-day, one night, sailing, I unpacked only a bit of my things. I could feel the ship get underway almost immediately, so I snagged my camera bag and went up on the top deck to enjoy the view. One of the things that struck me immediately on our transfer to our cruise boat was the sheer number of ships plying Ha Long Bay's waters. Tien told us that 2 million visitors come to experience its majestic scenery each year, and that more than 500 boats are registered to accommodate them. Most of the 200 that do overnight cruises seemed to be smaller three dockers, like ours. Some were much larger, though, and I was happy we had only our seven passengers to offload onto our tender, not the hundred or so I saw others dealing with. That also meant we had a much more intimate visit to all of the sights, such as Suprise Cave, kayaking, and more.
Magnificent scenery in Ha Long Bay
We were greeted with an amazing lunch by the gracious Marguerite staff (www.tonkincruise.com). Halong Best Tours had queried me for dietary requests ahead of time, and Tien had confirmed them as he'd picked each of us up at our hotel. I told them seafood made me ill, which although technically not an allergy, is the truth! We also had a vegan, vegetarian, and a chicken allergy on board and the kitchen and wait staff never made a mistake on what food they gave us. We were plied with course after course, and sometimes that meant three different offerings for each course to suit our requests. The food was fresh and tasty, and gave me the added legitimacy of trying local, Vietnamese dishes. I tend to have to force myself to do that on my trips -- Anthony Bourdain I am not! The best dish of them all, in my opinion, was the chicken curry we had for one course in that evening's dinner.
Suprise Cave -- our first stop on our sightseeing list
Our first sightseeing stop -- besides simply cruising through the jade green waters admiring the incredible scenery -- was Surprise Cave. It lived up to its name, being a series of three caverns that are progressively and dramatically larger. They are covered in stalactites and stalagmites, and artfully lit up with orange, green, and blue lights. A paved pathway leads through the caves, slick with the drip of water seeping through the limestone ceiling. Tien explained that more columns are being formed by this process all the time at a rate of one inch per year. When I'd read in the description of the cruise about a cave visit, I had no idea how impressive it would be. Although it wasn't as massive as the Skocjan Caves I'd visited in Slovenia, it was an unexpected scenic bonus...one could say a "surprise" (which is indeed how they got their name).
We filed back on our little diesel tender, which ferried us from the ship to all of the sights. Our next stop was an island which had steps leading to its summit, which we would hike to, and then a beach to go swimming in to cool off. The views going up and down the steps were spectacular, with a half dozen ships clustered attractively nearby in the bay. Although I'd been hoping for clear blue skies to enhance Ha Long Bay's scenery, we had a somewhat overcast day, instead. Nevertheless, it was not raining and miserable, like it had apparently been for several days before. It was incredibly muggy and hot, though. The water on the beach was not the clearest or cleanest, but it was refreshing. While we were treading water, I spotted a group of monkeys further down the beach. Me and the Irishmen, Will, went over shortly to investigate and get some photos. Turns out they were Golden Monkeys, and had been drawn to a sack of rice that had broken open and was scattered on the ground. A dozen tourists snapped photos of them eating, cavorting, and doing the X-rated things monkeys tend to do.
Golden Monkeys happily tear into a spilled sack of rice
Kayaking was next. I had not been in a kayak in more than a decade, so I was glad I was paired up with Tien. I took the risk of capsizing and brought my camera along, and am so glad I did. Some of my favorite photos from Ha Lomg Bay were taken while paddling on the water, including a couple sunset ones I'll treasure. I also took some good photos of my shipmates. Not being a master at kayaking skills, I managed to soak myself with repeated drips from the paddle. That was a small price to pay for the peace and calm of gliding through isolated coves in Ha Long Bay, far from the chugging of diesel motors. We watched a falcon glide through the air, keeping a sharp eye out for fish to swoop down upon. A few of us spotted immense jellyfish floating listlessly along, a patch of pink amidst the jade green waters. By the time our kayaking was done, my body was rudely reminding me of my 51 years. Kicking and screaming is my preferred method of accepting my age, but this is one battle I may concede. My airline back injury combined with being in my sixth decade of life (hmm...I do NOT like how that sounds) is telling me kayaking may not be my cup of tea -- despite it being a beautiful and enjoyable experience.
Two of my Aussie shipmates enjoy our kayaking
With the setting of the sun, our first day on Ha Long Bay was drawing to a close. The shower felt wonderful, the meal was sumptuous, and the company of my shipmates was jovial. As darkness fell, we camped out on the top deck in cushioned lounge chairs. All around us, the other boats lit up their lights. We could see the blacker bulks of the karsts looming over us set against the midnight blue of the sky. We all felt like we were staying up late into the night, swapping stories, but everytime one of us looked at our watch we remarked how early it still was! I was glad to hear them say it, as most of my companions were still in their 20s. We were all happy we were on the Marguerite Garden, though, instead of the neighboring ship blasting out karaoke. It was way before midnight when we all retired for the evening. Will vowed to stay up to watch the World Cup soccer game in the bar, but admitted next morning he fell asleep at halftime.
Nightfall in Ha Long Bay
I think I was the first one up the next morning. When I peeked out my cabins windows, I saw some blue sky. So, I figured I'd better get up and about before it disappeared. It was only the tiniest slice of blue when I went up on deck to take photos. However, the sun would seem to try to break through all day long. After breakfast (only slightly less massive), we boarded the tender again to go explore a hidden cove in a rowboat. We got to be "lazy boat people" -- as one kayaker was overheard describing us -- while our Vietnamese rower glided us along through a cave-like overhang and into a pool of calm. The circular cove was about 100 yards across, and tropical vegetation grew from the shore up the slopes of the surrounding island like a giant green bowl. Equally green was the perfectly still water, disturbed only by the sluice of our rower's oars. It was a lazy start to our final morning in Ha Long Bay.
Rowing through what appears to be a cave entrance but is actually a way into a hidden cove
Next, it was back to the boat, which was soon underway and threading its way through the dappled pattern of karsts in the bay. We took a sinuous route that maximized the scenery, and I remained on deck nearly the entire way back, taking photo after photo. We never did get that clear blue sky, but I have a feeling that it is hard to have bad views on Ha Long Bay. We passed by a number of the floating villages, where fishermen have made their homes. Some cater to the tourist business, but most retain their traditional lifestyle of fishing for a living. Tien and the tour representative, "Mr. T," described their method of staking out nets at high tide and then letting the falling water level trap fish, crabs, and other sealife for their meals. We saw the families in their boats, on the shores of the karsts, and repairing nets aboard their floating shacks, going through motions their ancestors had for generations.
Rowboats approach the floating homes of some of the traditional fishermen of Ha Long Bay
As an appetizer for lunch, we were taught how to make spring rolls, and then given a demonstration by the chef on how to carve vegetables into decorative flower shapes. Our final meal on board was the equal of all the others, and then we gathered our things and said goodbye to the crew. I would highly recommend the Marguerite Garden to anyone looking for a boat to sail on Halong Bay. They were friendly, accommodating, and such gracious hosts that we never felt unwelcome. Tien was a great tour guide, too, and any future cruisers would be lucky to draw him as a leader. To give an example of the devotion he puts into his job, he wakes up at 3 am in the morning to study Spanish, so he can better serve future guests. He changed the drop off point for my Aussie friends without any hesitation to better ensure they made their flight that day to Da Nang.
Traditional fisher families work and sometimes live on the shores of the limestone karsts
It was sad to say goodbye to the Aussies, though we may meet again in Da Nang later this week. It was also tough to say goodbye to our boat, too, and the brilliant jade waters of Ha Long Bay. As the humped backs of the karsts faded into a shadowy, blue distance, I tucked away the memory of a peaceful morning on the deck of my boat. Next time I hear the whir of a cicada, I won't think of an insect in a tree. Instead, I'll remember wide jade waters and jungle-clad limestone peaks sharing the moment with me.