A Travelettes Guide to Cruising Ha Long Bay
How do you decide where to go on your next holiday? Is it inspired by a friend’s travel tales, based solely on budget or do you spin a globe with closed eyes, letting fate take you somewhere?
When I told people I wanted to go to Vietnam because I love fresh spring rolls most thought that was good enough reason. When I told some others that I was going because I loved the movie Indochine so much, I got pitying looks instead. Apparently proper travelers don’t base their destination decisions on something as mundane as a movie they liked. So my official version has become that I went to Vietnam for my love of fresh spring rolls and but to Ha Long Bay for my love of Indochine. In case you haven’t seen the movie, do so immediately, because it is a perfectly tragic love story. Forget Casablanca – this will break your heart properly! But besides it being tragic and sad, it is also a simply beautiful movie as it boasts the most spectacular cinematography and locations. If this doesn’t make you want to go to Halong Bay, I don’t know what will. Indochine shows how the area was long before it was voted a UNESCO site and became a tourist attraction. Even just seeing it on my tiny Mac screen it took my breath away so for me it was a no-brainer that I would have to go there. As it holds true for most UNESCO sites they are so spectacular you will have to share them, so the real question for me was not should I go, but how to minimize it feeling like Disneyland.
With that prerequisite in mind I set of to search the internet for the perfect Indochine-sque way of traveling through Ha Long Bay. The offers on day trips and overnight cruises are plenty as you can imagine. Low budget trips that make you wear matching Sombreros were immediately crossed off my list while luxury cruises with an on deck massage service moved up, but unfortunately so did their price tag. Overall it didn’t help my search process that I am not really a big fan of cruises. The idea of Bingo and to be stuck on a boat with potentially very annoying people and nowhere to hide has just never appealed to me. So I decided to ease into it carefully and to rather start with a day trip through the bay and a night on Cat Ba Island.
The trip from Hanoi to Ha Long City wasn’t really pleasant and I don’t think it ever is as it sports bad roads and extended stops at factory shops with very insistent sales people and $6 Pringles. However three hours into the trip we started to see the first karst formations, some on land, some in the water, and that was when the bus came alive – we were almost in Ha.Long.Freaking.Bay!
Upon arrival we started with a 10 course lunch feast while our little boat shipped out of the harbour. After lunch it was activity time and we went off to see one of the bigger caves. If you think caves lit up in rainbow colours are kitschy and really touristy, you are probably right. But they are also really pretty – any stalagmite just looks better in pink.
From there we took the junk to a floating village for kayaking. This brought us up close to the karsts and smaller caves. The views were well worth the effort, but you have to be prepared to work hard or find a suitor to do the paddling for you in a double kayak. I realized that Jennifer Aniston has nothing on my arms and encouraged everybody to add a little post kayaking yoga stretch. Beers aside I don’t recommend you try this at home; I still don’t know how nobody managed to go overboard or at least pull a hamstring.
We spent our night on Cat Ba Island which has a few valleys that remind of Lost and Jurassic Park, but was overall nothing to write home about for me. I found myself wishing instead I could have stayed on the junk and have a view on the karsts from my bed instead of the Pho restaurant next door. So I decided to come back a week later, cruise it up and this time get a proper sea view room.
My research had found me the Dragon’s Pearl which cruises up to Bai Tu Long Bai, an area that only a few companies are allowed to frequent and which is thus more remote and less crowded. Off I went again and this time around it was all a bit fancier: there was a private minibus, a waiting lounge, and a tender that brought us to the junk. We boarded and I admit that sometimes I still have a hard time behaving like a proper adult: Upon being let into my cabin I started screeching and shouting OMG! and was jumping on the bed as soon as the steward had left. The room was all shiny with dark floors, white linens, and huge windows which kept their promise of sea view from bed. The bathroom had a regular shower and a rain shower which I would spend a lot of time under, just staring out the little pothole onto sea. All in all the room was so nice that I didn’t mind spending a few extra hours there the next morning when we got hit by a mini typhoon rainstorm.
Lunch and dinner were elaborate multi-course affairs again, though before you get worried about my waistline, a course could very well be one single prawn. The bar was lovingly called the mini bar, because, well, everything on a boat is just a little bit smaller, but our incredibly amazing crew still managed fancy cocktails for us all trip long.
The days were spent with more kayaking and swimming around the boat, which I must admit wasn’t terribly exciting. But then again I don’t want to envision the legal dilemma should the boat drop you somewhere in Halong for a swim and manage to lose you somehow. Very exciting though was our dinner on the second night.
I must admit that when I booked the cruise their offer of dinner in a cave was one of the deciding factors and it won over the junk with the massage service. Yes, again, I know it sounds so kitschy and oh so touristy, but I really wanted dinner in a cave and believe me – so do you! It felt like a mix between The Bachelor and Survivor to walk on the bare, slightly muddy floor into a cave lit with candles and furnished with white linen tables and stalactites. Another huge dinner commenced and was crowned by elaborate cakes for a birthday girl and a honeymoon couple that we all got to share. Cave, cake, and a proper toilet – what more can a girl want?
Back on the junk we had another hour to cruise before docking for the night. I sat on a lounger up on the sundeck, goodnight beer in hand, and just watched the world go by. A world that was just shapes and shadows now and that at night reminded me eerily of Titanic (something you should not mention to others while on a boat in the dark!). Eerie or not, it was even more beautiful to me than during the day. Of course I eventually started fumbling with my camera settings to capture this moment, but since neither my camera nor I are pros, it didn’t work. And instead of getting frustrated, I just put the camera down. Sometimes you need to not take a perfect picture and instead just watch the world go by with your own eyes and enjoy a perfect moment.