The Blessing and the Curse of Halong Bay

Halong Bay was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994 for good reason. There are just a handful of places in the world that have such extensive karst formations and the ever-changing sky and temperature make it a moody and romantic destination. Our photos won’t do it justice, but you’ll get the idea.

We began our adventure with an early pick-up in Hanoi, a 4-hour minivan drive to Halong Bay, and a quick transfer to our boat, Paloma.

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We had arrived in Hanoi and immediately booked a tour through our hotel. We had certain criteria – we wanted to plan our trip based on weather forecasts (we are about a month too early for dependable weather in that area). We read about the budget boats that were barely seaworthy booze cruises with rats running on deck and substandard food. Big pass on the substandard food.  We wanted a mid-range boat with good amenities and a small number of cabins and civilized fellow passengers.

We found them – our tablemates Emma and Jacob from Australia (at the head of the table) and Tom and Ellen from Denmark (across from Stephen and me). They really helped to make our cruise a lot of fun, but we got to know everyone on board, since we had just 27 guests. We lucked out on all counts – a great group of people, excellent staff and good weather.

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The dining room view from the other end:

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Our boat had an Agatha Christie feel to it – all dark wood and polished surfaces. Our room was cozy and spotless. We slept like babies, with our wooden windows opened wide to the cool sea air.

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Service was exceptional – all staff spoke some English, and our guides were knowledgable and so attentive. Jimmy (on my left) lives in one of the fishing villages we visited, while Justin lives near Hanoi. They were both so sweet and as you can see, Jimmy is about 85 pounds soaking wet and as friendly as a retriever pup.  Everyone loved him – one of the Aussies even picked him up and carried him around. Justin is a bit older and a bit more reserved. We had quite a chat in the minivan from Hanoi to Halong Bay. He was open about his contempt for Trump and had a few things to say about his own country. Most people here are very careful about what they say and to whom, so it was interesting to get his perspective.

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They work 16 days straight, get one day off and do it all over again. I wondered about them – both so young, working so hard, with no opportunity to have friends or a romantic involvement or a life of any kind beyond work. How do they do it and keep their positive energy?

So…to back up just a bit before I tell you about our experience. When we were researching Halong Bay, it was becoming quite depressing to read about the masses of tourists and hundreds of boats with music blaring into the wee hours and the bay filled with garbage. We so wanted to see the karsts, but didn’t want to spend all that time and money to get grumpy and annoyed if things were as bad as we had heard.

We read about Bai Tu Long Bay which is in the same body of water, with the same landscape but northeast of Halong Bay and at this point, far less tourist-y. Perfect – that made our decision easy and it turned out to be exactly as we had hoped. When our ship dropped anchor for the night, there were just 13 other boats in the very large sheltered bay. We saw the odd plastic bottle in the water, but there was almost no garbage.  We have no idea how it might have been had we sailed into Halong Bay, so I will have to leave that to someone else to report on.  We were surrounded by dramatic views; this one taken from our lower deck.

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Once onboard, our guides welcomed us with a quick briefing about our itinerary and we had our first meal – a delicious multi-course lunch – before heading back down to the lower level to climb on our small boat for our first outing – to a nearby cave and beach.
The cave was fine, nothing special (said the jaded one who has seen some spectacular caves), but the sail around opened up whole other vistas for us.

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Another ship who anchored near us for the night.

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Back to the mother ship by 4:30, and we were invited to go for a swim, jumping off the back of the boat at the lower level. A number of guests took advantage of this, including you-know-who.

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Those of you who have spent any time with me at Clark Bay will know that I’m a water chicken – the temperature has to be just right. So I won’t make excuses but I have to admit – all the bobbing heads in the water did make me feel like I was missing out.

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Up to the top deck  for a sunset party – we were treated to a little spread of fruit and crackers with some outrageously priced cocktails. I loved the table decorations – masterpieces carved from carrots.

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And an ambitiously endowed fisherman:

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We enjoyed a delicious multi-course dinner in the dining room, but we all agreed that the beverage prices were unreasonably high. We all would have ordered bottles of wine if they had been more fairly priced.

The next day, we were up at 6:45 for breakfast and then off on our little boat for a full morning.  First stop was a floating fishing village. There used to be over 1000 people living and fishing on their boats, but the numbers have dropped to 300 and the village was moved by the government to a location away from the tourist route, which means they have a much longer trip back to port with their catch.

As we approached the main dock area, we passed by some boat homes.

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And some floating homes:

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Jimmy was telling us there used to be a school, but it is gone now after the move, so if there are children in this area, they do not receive an education. How can that be?  To travel through the less-accessible areas, we all transferred onto small boats, rowed by women. Our tourist dollars have changed their lives – some of them have become a taxi service, and I wonder how they feel about that. Have they entered a trap from which there is no escape?

Gorgeous views along the way:

IMG_0710And under a small archway that is too low for other boats:

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If you’ve seen photos of Halong Bay before, you’ve likely seen images like this, with tourists kayaking underneath. As of April 1, 2017 (just days before our trip) the government pulled the plug on all kayaking in the bay. This represents hundreds, if not thousands of kayaks that are now up on shore. Tourists are disappointed, as kayaking was a big part of the trip and tour operators are frustrated but it is impossible to find out the reasons for this decision.  If our guides knew they were being tight-lipped about it and a Google search just showed a Vietnamese document stating the decision had been made.

Next stop was an oyster farm where pearls are cultivated. It was interesting – a pearl takes about three years to develop and it is quite a process. Our guide pulled up a number of racks out of the water holding various kinds of oysters – this held some of the largest variety.

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Back to our ship for one final activity – learning how to make spring rolls. After a demonstration, we all leaned in to make our roll – take a piece of rice paper, add a spoonful of filling and roll. How hard can that be, you ask? Well, my roll came out with about an inch or rice paper on either side – more like a Christmas cracker than a spring roll. Must be time for me to get back in a kitchen again.

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And that was it – our cruise was over and time to get back on the bus for Hanoi.

Was it worth it? Absolutely – a trip to Halong Bay, no matter where you sail to, should not be missed.

The Laos work-around

We left Luang Prabang with very good memories, but for one small detail: on our last day  Stephen exchanged $200US to Laos Kip (currently trading at about 5700 k to $1 CAD). The lady counted out 1 million, 600,000 kip, Stephen made a joke about being a millionaire, she laughed, and that was the end of it. About 8:30 that night, Stephen re-counted the  money and realized he had been short-changed about $20 US. He kicked himself for not counting it at the counter, but it seemed right at the time and…lesson learned. Except he couldn’t let it go. So he headed back up to the main street and another lady was just closing up. Stephen explained there had been a mistake, and after a bit of conversation, she believed him and handed over the missing cash! Amazingly, this very thing happened to another person who was staying at our hotel, and he also got his money back. It’s a nice little scam – when confronted, they simply hand back the money – it must be a profitable side business. Aside from being astounded that we got our money back, we have no hard feelings. It falls to us to be aware.

The next day, we headed out on our six-hour mountain bus trip from Luang Prabang south
to Vang Vieng. Almost immediately, the scenery grabbed us.

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The switchbacks were a little hairy, but our driver was (mainly) safe, and the road was (mainly) in good condition, so we just enjoyed the view.

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Laos is struggling to pull itself out of a state of truly dire poverty, and we saw some desperately poor houses in some of the mountain villages.  I was struck by the message on this house, on so many levels.

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In other villages, we would see a little more prosperity and comfort.

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A ball game of some sort was in full swing as we drove by.

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And then this happened. We came around a corner to find a tanker stuck in the middle of the road; its axle broken and the brakes gone. The driver had positioned rocks behind the wheels and could not be persuaded to let the truck roll back enough to allow other vehicles to get by (which may have been a spectacularly bad idea anyway). Much consultation ensued – our bus driver and the tanker driver walked back and forth and measured out the distance. Several other men joined in the discussion, and the decision was made: Our guy would try and squeeze through. He inched along, inched along and then stopped.

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The guardrail would have to be removed, which we’re quite sure is not legal. At first one piece came off, then two, then one of the posts, and again, each time our driver attempted to come forward, he was encouraged by a half dozen swampers, waving this way and that, yelling out encouragement.

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This entire endeavour took about two hours, but we all got to know each other a bit better, shared our banana chips, and generally took it in good humour. When all else fails, there are sun salutations.

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Stephen captured it on film – this will give you a better idea of how little wiggle room our driver had to get through. The big trucks in line behind us may still be stuck up there.

We were a pretty giddy lot by the time we got going, and when we arrived in Vang Vieng, it was almost dark. A short story about the hotel we booked – the Green View Resort. We saw it online, it was a tiny bit more than we wanted to pay, but situated on a lake, with swimming and kayaking and we were sold. After we had booked our non-refundable room, we realized too late that it was not even in Vang Vieng – it was 20 km. south. We would have to pay a $30 tuk-tuk fare to get there, and once there, we would be trapped. We were annoyed with ourselves, but decided to make the best of it.  A couple of days of R&R would be perfect.
Then…the fun began.  At the bus station, we told the tuk-tuk driver our hotel’s name and that it was far out of town, but that seemed okay to him, so we hopped in. After an hour of dropping off all the other passengers, our driver suddenly realized he did  not have the foggiest idea where we were going. He returned to the bus depot to settle the day and consult with his fellow drivers. He then went looking for a car (instead of driving all that distance in a tuk-tuk). The car was nowhere to be found, and after watching him on his cellphone, we pleaded to just get out there in the tuk-tuk.   He phoned our hotel owner for directions and set off, stopping at one point at a creek to pour water over his overheating radiator. He then almost ran out of gas. Stephen insisted that we stop to buy beer before we got to the hotel. Once there, he called our hotel again, and within a few minutes we had left the highway and bumped along a narrow rocky road in the pitch black for another ten minutes. We could see steep embankments on either side.

Finally, we arrived -we saw our hotel owner coming down the hill with a flashlight – I could have wept. He took us to our beautiful bungalow, we had showers and came back up to join a few loquacious French tourists for a delicious dinner. All was right again.

The view from our dining room. In the rainy season, all those islands are underwater.
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The view from just around the corner from our hotel.

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We spent yesterday in total relaxation mode. First we walked back up the road to the small village – about 30 minutes – to pick up some beer and snacks. We were a big hit with these little girls, who called out “hello”, then burst out giggling, then “what is your name?”, then more giggles. The driver of this contraption, Natalie, could not have been more than 10 or 11.

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We waved at a woman fishing from the banks on the way back. In the rainy season, the water rises almost to the top of the banks.

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We took out a two-man heavy plastic kayak for a spin around the islands. We were trying to find Monkey Island, although we were advised by the owner not to get out of the kayak, as the monkeys are very aggressive, and we didn’t want to get bitten. Duly noted – but we didn’t see any sign of monkeys on any of the islands we paddled past. We met up with lots of fishing boats and several fishing nets.

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We turned the corner and saw our very first water buffalo – a small herd of them were grazing on one of the islands. As we approached, they started to come down the hill toward the water’s edge, so we moved in as close as possible. This big male was giving us the hard stare, and started to paw the ground a little, so we conceded his territory and moved on.

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Back on dry land!

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Time to head back to our cabin and enjoy the view from our balcony, with a nice cold Beerlao – Laos’ fabulous homebrew, apparently courtesy of a German brewmaster.

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