The day of my cruise dawned just as grey and misty as the previous two but I’d asked Hung (who was from Ha Long) and he said weather was frequently pretty different from Hanoi. I’d sprung for the (slightly overpriced) shuttle to the dock for overall ease and they picked me up directly from the hotel.
This boat trip had been the ‘splurgey’ part of my pre trip planning. Ha Long bay is a beautiful place and I’d wanted to really enjoy things with a 3 day 2 night trip. As I watched the prices before leaving I’d been mildly concerned how open the bookings seemed even with a discounted price. Knowing that things were iffy with the virus/lack of chinese folks I was a bit worried they’d cancel the sailing. I went with what the reviews showed were a pretty top company and hoped for the best.
Midway through my sleep I guess I was just awake enough to hear the buzz of an email hitting my phone and with some trepidation saw that it was from the cruise company. It opened with ‘Dear Elizabeth’ which wasn’t a great start and went on to inform me that my cruise had indeed been cancelled, not due to lack of people but due to the government mandating preventative sanitization. This is where I think going with the fancier company paid off as not only did they swap me to one of their other sailings, I was told I was being given an upgrade though I figured I would believe it when I saw it in person.
The bus snaked out of Hanoi picking people up at various hotels and I was struck again by how ‘small’ a city it feels. It’s an urban area with around 8 million people but very few tall buildings and no ‘downtown’ conglomeration of highrises just the a small number of clusters of taller apartment blocks. We also got to a semi-rural neighbourhood surprisingly quickly as only a few minutes after passing back near my hotel we were shifting it down a semi-paved road with a herd of oxen being drive alongside the road and over some traintracks. Then very quickly we were on a modern and mostly empty expressway (apparently recently opened) heading towards Haiphong.
Of course this was a pretty well worn tourist path so of course there was a built in captive audience ‘rest’ stop one of my absolute least favourite things in the world. This one (a pearl workshop/retailer) was at least interesting in that they had people harvesting some of the pearls out in public where you could watch. The showroom itself was full of ridiculously expensive pearl objects though and was massive. It seemed almost exclusively devoted to tourbus throughput too… I can’t understand the mindset where you’d buy a $20,000 pearl choker at some place your bus happened to stop but perhaps some of the Chinese buses normally go there specifically for the shopping.
As we approached the bay you could see more and more evidence of the limestone karst islands in the distance. Ha Long bay has almost 2000 individual islands ranging wildly in size but forming a maze of internecine channels and anchorages. You’ve no doubt seen it in a travel show at some point, probably in sunnier weather than I did.
For a fancypants cruise outfit they didn’t seem particularly well organized but eventually we were sitting on the tender and heading out to the ship to be greeted by the waving and smiling crew. She wasn’t particularly large but was beautifully fitted out as we discovered while heading to the dining room for an introductory briefing (While they took our bags to our suites.) They marked our tables with our national flags which was cute (and also a good hint as to who would be the easiest to talk to.) Once the talk had broken up we went to our rooms to settle in before our first stop and… I couldn’t find mine. I mean logic dictated that room 308 was on deck 3 but deck 3 only seemed to have the Royal suite… and oh my god, no it couldn’t be. Felix our cruise director (an extremely young seeming but super friendly and competent guy) saw me looking upstairs and said “you’re upstairs Sir.” Sure enough I climb the stairs and my backpack is sitting outside the Royal Suite. Pessimist that I am I assumed it was just a fancy name (the boat was the Athena Royal after all) to cover the fact that it was actually tiny because most of it was hiding a smoke stack or the freezer or something… then I opened the door and discovered this:
A huge bed, copious amounts of space and a panoramic view of the limestone islands passing by. Outside was a private deck area for just me that wrapped around the whole thing. The fact that the bathtub was apparently broken (I later found out) was the only blemish but the bathroom also had a massively space wasting shower for an on ship bathroom. I couldn’t believe my eyes or honestly even settle down to enjoy it at first… I flopped on the bed then got up and went outside to my private swing chair, then got back up and stared at the view from the other side. In the end it was only the call that we’d arrived at the floating village and it was kayaking time that sent me scurrying to change and brought me back to reality.
Not so long ago there were a much larger number of floating villages at various points in the bay. Now there are only a couple that mostly serve as a model of what the life was once like for visitors. The official party line appears to be that populations dwindled too much due to people not wanting the life anymore but some folks appear to have been more or less forcibly transfered to a shorebound life as part of government efforts to clean up the bay. They did mention that children are now forced to go to school and as such are away from their parents most of the week. Once upon a time I imagine the appeal was to be out closer to the fishing grounds in the days when you had to row. In the modern era and as part of an effort to clean up what was apparently getting to be a worse and worse situation with plastics and waste…
The remaining village we visited was very simple, the population apparently not what it once was. The people ran a fish farm and some pearl cultivation, as well as dock for the tourism visits. It was 18ish out so every single other pansy person from my ship opted to be rowed around in bamboo boats while I kayaked. This particular town was built in a shallow lagoon in the middle of a cluster of karst outcroppings. There were several clusters of houses and most had at least one dog, usually lazing away the afternoon somewhere on the decking that made up the ‘homestead’ of each home. There were several communal structures but it was mostly just the homes. Kayaking in that setting was beautiful though and even the occasional bit of chatter from the other boats appeared to disappear into the mist at times.
I’ll be honest, I was in awe of just the whole experience as I got back to the Royal and after a hot shower just curled up on my (MY!) deck and watched island after island slip by.
Drinks on the boat weren’t cheap by viet standards, though pretty close to a cocktail at a restaurant back home, so most of us took advantage of two for one happy hour before dinner. There was also very basic cooking lesson but that was more or less immediately swarmed by the half of the boat from taiwan that was just doing one night so I sat and drank Mai Tais and read until Elizabeth and Marcus from Singapore and the two older swedish couples arrived and we all chatted for a bit before dinner, which was a five course varied dinner with lots of fresh seafood with mostly viet flare. One never left the table hungry on this boat.
Despite the restrictions there were still a fair number of boats out and as we anchored for the night you could see a number of others quite clearly, none of which looked as nice as ours (or particularly full.) Most of us retired quite early and I spent an hour or so finishing off the first blog post, though the wifi was more than a bit shaky out in the bay so it didn’t get posted til I was back on land.
Day two was kicked off with a shipwide announcement to the taiwanese as their itinerary included an early cave trip before us three day folk even had to be at breakfast. Annoying, but once I was up and peering out my windows I wasn’t going back to sleep.
We also learned that apparently the main boat just goes back and forth between the harbour and this spot. The one night people would be returning to shore and some new folks arriving… and those of us on the two night (both from our boat and the second athena boat) would transfer to a day boat for the morning/early afternoon. I can see the appeal in the flexibility for the tour company but don’t really love the impact it has on the busyness factor for the places closest to shore. I gather there are some ships that straight up do a longer tour in 3 day chunks… I would probably try to seek one of those out next time for a different/better? experience.
The day boat was a reasonable sized flat bottomed boat with a dining area below and a sun deck above (even if the sun was still resolutely refusing to show its face.) It took us down a maze of smaller islands, occasionally rolling a bit when we hit a gap in the islands, until we hit a semi sheltered area and two men appeared piloting ancient looking wooden boats. And here’s where this lazy cruise weekend became a bit of an adventure.
We putt putted our way through what I guess was a shallower channel in order to get around another island and on to a small beach. Nestled into the cliffs at this spot was a large cave, quite deep but bone dry despite being right near the water level. Our guide showed us around the cave, pointing out some of the geological features including a couple that seemed to be his favourite, clusters that seemed to mimic the forms of sleeping turtles. This hilariously lead to an American fellow from the other boat saying ‘poor little guys, so sad.’ Based on later interactions with him I’m 90% he genuinely thought it was a fossilized real turtle somehow. When we emerged from the cave our guide gave us leave to explore the beautiful, very remote feeling beach and shoreline. We only saw one other boat during this section of the trip and it was definitely the best part of the trip for an actual feeling of nature, though in truth we still only saw a few sea eagles and various shells.
As we threw our life jackets back on and got on the boat I decided against kayaking as did everyone else (less surprising.) The wind had kicked up a fair bit and I knew at least part of the crossing would be open to it, which combined with a long-ish (45m) paddle felt like a bit much. They had told us we could kayak nearer the day boat if we wanted so I figured I’d just do that, but then the trouble began. Our boat was using the first boat as a boarding path but had wedged his front up on it in the process. Once we were all sitting down he attempted to rock us off the other boat, increasingly violently and doing so without turning his prop off so even when he briefly got us off we’d just spin around on the sandbar. Even I’ve spent enough time on boats to know he was doing it wrong, and sure enough at some point in this process he apparently holed his boat and started taking on water.
Twenty minutes later ‘the young ones’ (i.e. everyone under 50) were standing on the beach watching the other boat leave, and only then told we were kayaking. This left us with all our stuff (phones, cameras, extra clothes) on the kayaks with us and more worryingly to me, no support boat. I don’t consider myself an exceptional kayaker but I can hold my own, the Singaporean couple knew what they were doing (he did at least, she mostly took pictures) but the other folks were definitely at ‘I did it once on a glassy lake’ level and our guide wasn’t much better (and was towing the surplus kayak.) I tried to pass on a few lessons at staying more stable while driving into the wind but I was definitely not confident we’d get far without someone tipping (at which point there would be nowhere to easily get them back on board and their stuff would be long gone.) The young American woman kept asking what would happen if we tipped and I said we’d get her back in but truthfully I imagined we might just have to get her to cling to the kayak and keep pulling her away from the rocks/currents until the boat returned.
Thankfully we managed to get around the first open section and into the semi protected channel, at which point the boat did return and picked up the less able folks, at that point I was already wet though so just passed off my backpack and paddled the rest of the way. At that point we were able to relax and enjoy the rest of the paddle more… and what a paddle it was. As gorgeous as the first spot had been, being surrounded by other tourists getting rowed around had robbed it of something… here it was just the two kayaks, the sounds of splashes and the occasional whistle of the wind.
The last section back to the dayboat was fully open to a driving wind coming off the open ocean however and I’m fairly certain we’d have tipped one of the novices at this point so I’m glad they came back for them. Back on board, dried off and changed we had yet another delicious meal and headed back to rendezvous with the Royal again where a new crop of one nighters had come on board.
One of the Swedes was having a birthday and the cruise had provided him with a lovely cake which he invited us all to share. Elizabeth noticed the server putting out the new flags and asked to look at them and proceeded to hold each one up of which I knew about 95% thanks to being a vexillogy nerd as a kid. It got to the point where she wanted to arrange a competition then have me on her team. Flag nerd spotted.
The next morning was a super early start. I’d been leaving my biggest window open to wake up to the view so I rarely slept late anyway but this was more or less with dawn. We were visiting one of the previously inhabited caves, this one higher up on one of the islands and with steps and water reservoirs etc carved into it. The stellagtites/mites were beautiful and the cave quite interesting but despite our early early start we only had about 10 minutes alone in the cave before absolute swarms of other people arrived. Once back down at sea level our trusty Felix informed us that there’d once been a restaurant/bar here but that the government had shut it down due to environmental fears. A hopeful sign. I do think an ecological camp/cafe could survive there but you’d have to be very concious of ecology before profit and Vietnam is very much anything for a buck at the present time. I understand where they’re coming from in what was until recently a very poor, very closed off country but hopefully an equilibrium can be reached.
Unfortunately there’s definitely a feeling that there should be more life here. There are nowhere near the level of sea birds that you’d expect. Apparently there are breeding populations in the islands I’m guessing they’re farther out in the islands. The geometry of the islands also precludes much viewing/knowledge of the animals that might be living on them. I also very rarely saw a fish jump and certainly no sign of anything larger. A lot of agricultural land feeds into the bay as well as a couple ports, the water isn’t particularly clear though what part of that is pollution and what is silt runoff I don’t know. That said, steps already being taken appear to have helped on the garbage from what I’ve been told and what I’ve seen and Ha Long bay is deservedly one of the modern natural wonders of the world. I just hope it stays that way (and hopefully improves.) I think if I came back to Vietnam I might stay in the area and do some side trips in hopes of better understanding… but at the present time again, some of the access on the larger islands are shut down for virus fears.
As people were checking out I got a peek at the more normal cabins and they were quite nice as well, though obviously smaller. I still have no idea why I was the lucky one who got the Royal Suite but I think I made the best use of the private deck as very few of the rest of them spent any time on the public sun deck. I personally wouldn’t call it anything like ‘cold’ but it was definitely persistently breezy and usually around 17-19c so those from warmer climes weren’t about to sit out in the wind. My only regret is that the sun never came out, seriously not even for a moment while we were in the bay. It would have been nice see some warmer colours, but I did love the mysterious misty morning look tons too.
Honestly this was a once in a lifetime experience and I enjoyed every minute, I heartily recommend the cruise to anyone… just practice your kayak stroke first.