We were picked up around 8ish by the Glory Tours minibus for our Halong Bay Cruise. We then continued around the Old Quarter picking up people. We drove past a group of maybe forty odd cyclos parked together all chatting away getting ready for a days work , which looked really cool. Mr Happy introduced himself to everyone and started to tell us some of the history of Hanoi and Halong Bay. Ha in Hanoi comes from Vietnamese meaning city and noi means river so together it means city on the river. Hanoi of course is situated on the Red River. Ha in Halong is from Mandarin and means descending and of course long means dragon. The locals believe a dragon came down and spat pearls into the bay to stop the northern invaders. Those pearls turned into the 1500 odd islands which wrecked the invaders boats. The dragon descended into the water and remains in Halong bay to protect it. He also told us of ancient kings defeating the Chinese.
Happy told us all sorts of things on the way, in an effort to make everyone comfortable and everyone introduced themselves and promptly forgot everyone’s names. Oops. There were two Chileans girls, Maria and Vanetta, an Indonesian couple, a German girl Manuela and her boyfriend, a German bloke Manuel, a Scotswomen Moira, and a couple from Perth Al and Anne.
It was interesting coming out from Hanoi as this side of the city was home to large brick works, large factories and further out we found one of the reasons for all the smog, a big coal fired power station. Coal is mined from the mountains surrounding Halong Bay and shipped in barges across the bay and up the river. The biggest deposit of coal in Vietnam lies around the bay and with the industrialisation of Vietnam due to cheap labour air quality is taking a dive.
The three hour trip from Hanoi was broken with a stop at a huuuuge one stop gift shop. The usual exit through the gift shop trick…..
There was about an acre of decorative ceramics, handbags, jewellery, carved jade, paintings, lacquerware, wood carvings, garden ornaments, statues, food, lollies, you name it….. it had a price tag on it. There were over fifty ladies bent over embroidery cloth furiously stitching and another 5 busily sewing on machines…….A veritable sweat shop in a gift shop.
We were dropped at the left side of the building and told to meet at the right side of the building in 30 minutes. We grabbed a cup of pretty ordinary coffee for 30,000 VND each, hmmmm captive audience.
There were road works a lot of the way, though not too many people were actually working, sort of like council workers the world over. Meanwhile out in the rice paddies there were heaps of people working, like farmers the world over. There were people turning over the rice paddies preparing for planting, using walking tractors, rotary hoes, and little tractors with big mesh back wheels especially designed for driving through the flooded paddies. There were also people doing it the traditional way with buffaloes. We were told that are three things the Vietnamese dream of Wife, House and Buffalo. The humble buffalo retails at approximately $3,000 and during the planting season can be rented out for $25 per day. So not a bad investment as the running costs are low. You don’t have to pay for fuel just let it graze for a few hours and its ready for another days work.
The drive down to Halong was like a scene out of the old movie “Wacky Racers”. Roads with lanes closed on alternating sides like a giant obstacle course. Minivans slipping past up the inside at every opportunity, and the bigger Minibuses jostling with other minibuses, trucks and bigger tour buses for position. Every now and then the driver would spot a gap and just plant the foot. Just before we thought we would die in a fiery crash the driver would swing the wheel and we’d slide back into the traffic causing the next bus to slam on its brakes. Added to this cars, motorbikes, all sorts of vehicles competing for position in this weird race and to add to the confusion the “Daisy Duck” drivers, eyes straight ahead focused on the destination putt putt putting along.
As we drew nearer to Halong Bay the grey overcast skies became lower and lower. It was pretty evident that everybody’s prediction of fine and warm was as good as weather predictions at home. Happy had been spruiking earlier in the trip that last night he’d been speaking to his friend the sun last night and that the sun would be visiting Halong Bay. Well maybe the sun may have been visiting but Mr Fog was standing in the way.
When we arrived at Halong Bay, organised pandemonium broke out. Every tour boat was still alongside or at anchor waiting for the fog to lift so there were people milling about everywhere, with anxious tour operators contemplating lost business. Glory Cruises had a waiting area which was quite spacious where we found a table and chatted with some other people joining us on the cruise.
Eventually we boarded a little bum boat, were handed a lifejacket and headed out to the “Glory” for lunch as we were still not sure we were able to actually go on the planned cruise. Lunch was pretty sumptuous consisting of Lotus and Red Bean Soup, Crispy Prawns, carrot and cucumber salad, squid ginger and garlic, Clams and pineapple, catfish in soy, and of course so much rice that Steve Hooker couldn’t have pole vaulted over it. Six of us struggled through the meal, there was more than enough to feed a dozen of us. Adding to the logjam of food the non seafood eaters were served Satays and tofu as well. It was nice hearing about people’s travels as everyone had travelled to different places. Moira gave us some tips about Sapa, Anne and Al told us about Thailand, and the Chilean girls told us of their travel to Australia and their plans for Asia.
The fog appeared to be set in and the company, like everyone else, were waiting approval from authorities before sailing. We were told that the weather would clear about 3 pm, and we would proceed from there. Three o’clock rolled around and it was absolute pandemonium as tour bouts everywhere slipped anchor and headed full steam out to the bay. We waited, and waited for the captain to return so we could sail. We were told that he had to line up with all the other tour captains to gain approval before we could sail. With the day slipping away visiting the fishing village and kayaking were off the agenda. Also due to the misty rain which slowly settled in swimming and sunbathing were also off the activity list leaving the Sunset Party mmm no sun so that may be off too luckily Spring Roll making still would be available.
About 4 we slowly cruised out with lots of other boats passing the huge fog wrapped limestone island mounts on either side. With the low fog and mist the island mounts appeared to be like gorillas in the mist. As we cruised along we tried to stay dry while snapping photos. Fishing boats with large wooden beams protruding forward containing a huge fishing net slowly slipped past as the dark started to settle in, off on a nights catch.
Eventually we came to anchor quite close to a number of islands, just us and about thirty other cruise boats. Small tenders rushed to and from the larger cruise boats delivering day trippers back to their overnight home. Two English blokes and a girl on the three day tour joined us.
About 4.30pm Happy called everyone together for the Vietnamese cooking class as the staff laid the table with ingredients. Plates were laid with wet face washers in readiness for wetting the rice paper, to make them pliable. Plastic disposable gloves (the hair dying variety) were handed around and soon people were spooning the mixture onto the softened rice paper, before rolling them.
The spring rolls were taken and not long later reappeared cooked golden brown and crispy for us to enjoy.
Happy pulled out a small table top football game for the guests but soon the staff were oohing and aahing as they twisted and pushed the handles trying to get the little plastic players to kick a goal. Some of the guests settled down for a game of scrabble, we pulled out the cards and the Germans settled for a few frothies making the most of the three for two(not including bottles of wine) happy hour.
The misty rain eased of just before dark and we were able to try our hand at jigging for squid using a long pole with a piece of line and a squid jig attached. Michele was pretty excited as she joined a few other people chancing their hands. One of the other girls pointed to “a squid” just below the surface and Michele dropped her jig just below it and quickly had it hooked. She wrestled it to the surface and proudly landed an 80 gram empty plastic chip packet. One of the things that people just don’t get here is dropping litter. Everywhere we go in Asia people just drop their rubbish anywhere with no regard for the environment. Just two days ago we were crossing a footbridge when a lady carrying a large plastic corn bag stuffed full of rubbish walked to the centre of the bridge and just tossed it into the river. These are the same people who rely on the river for their fish, to water their animals, and for their own household water you would think they would understand a bit more.
The evening meal was surprising with firstly Pumpkin soup, which had an odd almost oatmeal flavour and soft creamy texture. This was followed by a sweet zesty salad with lime and coriander flavours made from a vege similar to turnip,but with the consistency of a crispy pear and sprinkled with sesame seeds, king prawns peeking out of a large stemmed glass, containing decorative flowers on bamboo sticks crafted from carrots and choko. The plates kept coming with steamed carrot and choko, stir fried chicken and ginger, sweet and sour fish and of course rice.
Most surprising was when the lights went out and Happy came out with a beautiful birthday cake for Michele. She was so embarrassed with everyone singing Happy Birthday to her, and then wishing her happy birthday afterwards. It was a strange cake with a round centre of sponge layers and then sponge in vertical strips surrounding it, with cream between layers and lemon frosting. A cake like no other. We enjoyed this with a chocolate sponge for dessert.
After dinner we settled back for the evening movie “Halong Bay in the Sunshine”. The movie told us all the facts that Happy had happily told us previously on he way down on the bus, on the foredeck, on the aft deck and whenever there was a chance of a quiet moment.
After the movie it was time for the “Shock Happy Hour”. Two for one drinks, (beer and soft drinks not included). Everyone settled back, had a few drinks and chatted. The lights of the boats riding at anchor close by shimmered on the smooth water surface and if it was balmy it would’ve been perfect.
We awoke with the view of boats at anchor on the calm mill pond surface with a slight misty rain and fog enveloping the bay.
and Breakfast was pretty spartan with pastry scrolls, tiny muffins, coconut tart, bananas, and toast with jam.
The Tai Chi class was cancelled due to the misty rain and Happy’s plan of getting to Cave of Wonders before every other tour boat. We transferred into the bum boat and were handed our life jackets (I’m yet to find one that has clips which aren’t broken) we ere also handed a disposable blue poncho (which hadn’t been disposed of and was ripped in different places)
We set off for the cave and I was immediately pleased that I was wearing the poncho because the rain blew straight through the boat. I quickly relocated to the rear of the boat where the crew were all were taking cover from the weather.
You’ll probably get sick of the word pandemonium but once again there was an outbreak, this time at the wharf, with a dozen of so bum boats trying to jockey for position to offload their passengers. Obviously everyone else got wind of Happy’s plan and there was a mad rush to get there first. We disembarked in the drizzle to join the long line of people slowly shuffling towards the ticket building. The staff purchased the tickets and distributed them to us before we started pushing forward again. Some of the shyer members of our tour were left behind in the crush as Russians, French and other European tourists surged forward. I pushed my way through then parted some people so our tour could try and stay together but the two German guys were way too polite and were left behind as the crowd started to get a bit desperate.
The cave was split into three parts with a small entry cave, a larger middle cave and an enormous third cave. There were a few nice formations, including if you squinted and used your imagination vaguely Buddha shapes, Uncle Ho, turtles, crocodile, dogs, pigs and Romeo and Juliet.
In my opinion after seeing caves all over Australia, New Zealand and Asia it was pretty underwhelming. If there were no crowds, or if this was the first one you’d ever visited, or if it wasn’t built up so much by Happy it might have been an awesome place to visit.
I met a few Australian missionaries from South Australia on the way back to the boat who were taking a break after work in Cambodia. They seemed like nice people trying to make a difference in a country which really needs some help.
The weather didn’t let up on the way back with misty rain blowing the length of the boat ensuring everything got an even soaking. I felt sorry for the local fishing village people with their clothes hanging outside on the line as the rain steadily fell. There was no chance of sunshine making an appearance and no chance of getting their clothes dry in the non existent dryer.
Back on the Glory, we packed our luggage and returned our room keys and enjoyed a coffee before brunch.
Sweet potato chips, papaya salad, chicken and cashews, stir fried scallops, prawns in a cheese sauce, beef and black pepper and Rice for brunch served on huge plates.
The Glory raised anchor and proceeded back to the wharf anchorage. On the way we were handed our bill, Two smoothies, two sprites, a glass of wine and 8 local coffees USD $45. None of the drinks with meals, including coffees, were free. Ned Kelly was a gentleman compared to this mob.
We transferred back to the bum boat, wallet well and truly squeezed out, and headed for the landing. We were ushered back to the Glory Cruises Al Fresco area for some complimentary green tea and to wait for the bus to take us back to Hanoi.
Meanwhile Boat Captains were feverishly filling in forms, and waiting patiently for clearance before the mad scramble to get back out cruising. Just as we were leaving there were about six converted barges all trying to turn around in the harbour in readiness for a speedy departure.
The bus arrived about half an hour later the Chileans, the Germans, us, and the passengers from the other Glory boat climbed aboard and headed for Hanoi.
Happily motoring along when we heard a siren. We looked out the window to see a white police car zoom past with a policeman with arm hanging out the window waving a white baton, pointing for us to pull over, following closely behind was another police car with two policemen hanging out brandishing white batons. The truck in front of us quickly pulled to the side of the road and the bus followed suit. Following the police cars was a SUV and a minibus with hazard lights flashing travelling at great speed. Obviously someone of importance. Once they’d passed our bus rejoined the traffic.
We stopped at the One Stop Gift Shop again but only purchased an icecream before heading to the exit. At the back of the One Stop shop all the buses were being washed. All part of the service I suppose.
The drizzle continued all the way back to Hanoi. We felt sorry for the people in crappy poncho’s riding bikes in the rain, it’s a hard way to stay dry. One guy lost a satellite dish off the back of his motorbike that almost caused an accident but the car driver used his head and just drove over the gutter and up over the footpath missing it.
When we arrived back at the hotel the staff were happy to see us again. They were shaking our hands and carrying our bags up the stairs. It’s nice to be loved.lol
Croque Monsieur (toasted ham cheese sandwich with mustard) and Flammekuchen (pizza with cream, ham and onion) at the Paris Cafe for tea really broke the monotony of all the different Asian meals we’ve had over the last day. The meals were absolutely wonderful on the cruise but sometimes a toastie hits the spot.
We booked our cruise through Darian Culbert . We have used his company before to organise the Invitation Letter for our visa. We have found him very professional and thorough with all of our dealings.