Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Halong Bay Cruise

We left Hanoi heading east to Halong City to start our two night / three day cruise along Halong Bay. Our hotel made the arrangements for both the cruise itself as well as the transport to the ship.  This ride took a couple hours from Hanoi with a single stop at a huge tourist trap.

The stop was a big warehouse facility where you could buy art work, clothing, food and statuary.  None of it interested my group at all.  The first room you came across had a couple dozen young women doing needlepoint and other sewing arts.  It looked like a sweatshop.

Sweatshop?
Pretty Kitty...we opted not to procure this lovely piece of "art"
A statue that you could take with your or ship home...
or in our case, leave it behind.
Another angle of the sweatshop - even with a young man working.
After the sweatshop, we made our way to the cruise ship terminal.  I didn't realize how many ships were going to be at the terminal, but there were a nearly a dozen prepped and ready to head out.  There were many options for cruises and the prices varied from under $100 to $500+ per trip.  We opted for a mid range cruise.  
Our Ship
Some of the other less than luxurious boats.
Boarding
After we boarded and we were shown to the dining room where we were given a briefing on the boat, the safety features and the expected itinerary.

Dining table during the briefing.
The full dining hall on our small / intimate boat.
After the briefing we all headed to our staterooms to freshen up a bit before our lunch aboard ship. We opted for a room with two twin beds. We read many things that suggested we steer clear of sharing a bed in Vietnam - too conservative of a country. We had no issues though.

The beds were small but quite comfortable. If you had a double room the beds were just pushed together.  The room was pretty small and the only furniture in it was a nightstand and the beds...which I'm ok with -- I'd prefer to be outside exploring the boat or enjoying the other public areas.  The room had a couple power outlets in easy reach of both the beds.  If only every guestroom in hotels or on boats had ample outlets.
Our stateroom.
The bed.
The bathroom was private but small and had a toilet, sink and shower. The water was warm and had good water pressure.  There was no fan, so the bathroom steamed up pretty quickly - you had to leave the porthole open to keep the room from getting too steamy -- even though it was pretty steamy outside too!
Bathroom
Shower
We head out into the bay. All four of the boats with the same tour company left together and stayed in pretty close formation.  It was like we were hiding from the German Submarines in WWII.

Fleet of Boats Heading Out to the Bay
As we continued out to the Bay we came across many small transport or fishing boats throughout the area.  Many of these boats were also small merchant boats trying to sell guests on the boats a bunch of souvenir crap (like sea shells, fruit, candy, colorful rocks, etc).

Fishing Boat
View of the Rocks in the Bay
Main Cruise Ships and Smaller Transports.
A grouping of small local boats.
Locals just hanging out...
Buy some of my crap? I have a baby...
After a couple hours of cruising through the bay we reached our first destination and we all piled into a small tug and headed out to visit some caves. This was far from a secluded area, but the guide was good it was nice to get off the boat and explore a new area.

Tender with required life jackets.
Our guide.


We headed up the hill a little bit, getting a great view of the surrounding area, our boat and local fishing boats.

Bay / Boat View
Up, up and up for better views.
We were told to keep our eyes on this pagoda across a channel in the bay...that would be our next stop in the afternoon and we'd get to hike up the mountain to that pagoda.

Next Stop
A woman catching craps and squid.


Buy my crabs and crap...
All the literature shows how peaceful Halong Bay is...which is partially true. It was peaceful but there were so many other tourist boats out there, you were never along and you could always hear the rumble of a diesel engine.
Look at all those tourist boats.
More Boats!
After we got back from both the cave trip and the hike, we had time to freshen up and if we wanted to could take a Vietnamese Cooking Class before dinner.  We sat in on the class and we were surprised at how many people didn't want to help make the egg rolls, it just scared them!
Cooking Demonstration.
The fellow guests from San Francisco offered lots of advice
on how to make better egg rolls.  Pretty annoying.
After dinner fellow guests practiced Tai Chi
Grandmother and Granddaughter practicing late night Tai Chi.
Morning photo shoot - Boat with sails unfurled.


We started off the second day with Tai Chi on the roof of the boat, then headed down to breakfast.  Since we were staying two nights and others were only there for one night, we had to transfer to a smaller boat to take us out on our days excursion.

The fishermen were up earlier.
Small Pagoda on the beach.
Small transport / fishing boat
Our first excursion today was to visit a small island inhabited by locals (not hotels, not public houses, only one little store for tourists to buy water and snacks).  We rode bikes across this island to the far village, met some locals then hiked for about 30 minutes or so.

Our excursion day boat.
Island Bike Rental

Rice Paddy




Rice Paddy and River
We stumbled across this house on stilts while riding around the island.
The main road on the island.
I love cows - any form of cows, be they traditional cows that you see here in the US or water buffalo. There were tons of cows (or cow equivalents) on this island.

Cow
Cow
Cow equivalent.
Gate into the main village on the island.
Double cows...
Older ladies working the rice paddy.
Once in the village we hopped off our bikes, found this little house which also served as a convenience store, where we could buy water and junk food.  There were many dogs and cats sitting around this house, just lounging.

Pet? Food? Both?
We left the little convenience store and started our hike -- of our group of 12 people, only 5 decided to make the hike with the guide. Some people didn't plan properly and only brought sandals.  There was a thought that we may have been able to see some monkeys in the wild. We were all pretty excited about this. Unfortunately, our 30 minute hike yielded no monkeys.

Hiking path, up and over a little mountain.
Flower along the hike.

Our group heading up a steep hill...
...and taking a break, before...
We headed into a cave.
As we headed back to the pickup point from the little village we managed to stumble upon another woman working the fields with her cows in the background.

Working the fields with cows looking on.
After the bike ride excursion was over, we headed back our smaller excursion boat. The afternoon option for us was to go kayaking.  I thought this looked like a lot of fun, but since I don't swim, I was having no part of it. The rest of the guys in our group went out and had a great time. I stayed aboard and drank beers with some Scottish Tourists.

Safety is a priority when you travel with me.
A fleet of kayaks.
MS heading out on the kayak. That big empty seat in the front was for me.
The boys heading into a cave. I thought I'd never see them again.
After kayaking (or drinking with the Scottish folks) we returned to meet our big boat and prep for dinner. A cooking class was also offered this evening -- it was the same class as the night before. Obviously they don't really expect people to be doing a multi-night cruise, do they.  After dinner, the dining room turned into a movie theater showing the film Indochine. I love this film. If you haven't seen it, throw it on the top of your Netflix queue right now. It's an epic about the final generation of the French occupation on Indochina (Vietnam).

Our final day on the boat had us starting the morning with some more Tai Chi then heading out on another excursion. We were told that this excursion had our best chance of seeing monkeys, so I was excited.

Rush hour for the tourist excursion boats.
View inside a sheltered area in the bay.
We didn't see any monkeys.

It was bittersweet to leave the boat. It was only a 3 day-2 night cruise, but I had a lot of fun. By the time we finished our itinerary I was ready to be done and move on with our trip. Every time we are on a trip and a major component comes to a close, I am saddened because that means the trip is one step closer to being over.

If you are in Vietnam, you must go on a cruise along Halong Bay. We used Paradise Cruises and I would recommend you booking with them as well. Our crew was pretty good - about as polished as I'd expect from a crew working Halong Bay.  The cruise was a good value for the money too.  The food was better than acceptable but the wine was definitely over priced.  There was a happy hour on board, which is really the reason that we came down to watch the cooking class two nights in a row...

Have you been to Halong Bay? Who did you cruise with?  What was your favorite part?

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