Halong bay is perhaps the most famous tourist attraction in Vietnam. And in some ways it’s a victim of its own success: there are such a dizzying array of tours and boats to choose from that many tourists give up being able to make a comparison and just pick the one their hotel offers them.
Halong Bay is not far from Hanoi. Most of visitors taking an organized cruise tours combined with transportation from Hanoi. Very easy, as soon as you reach old Hanoi, the pretty and touristy part of Hanoi, you’ll be offered tours every direction you turn. Usually for a day trip, 1 night, or 2 nights. From budget prices, to rather luxurious ones.
We decided we wanted to have extra time by ourselves in Halong Bay that didn’t involve a tour group, so we ended up going to Catba Island, the biggest island in Halong Bay, by ourselves. Taking a bus-boat-van combo ticket from Hanoi (Hoang Long bus, $10, from Luong Yen bus station), and choosing our own accommodation in Catba. We planned to spend a day taking a cruise of Halong Bay from this island, and another day to explore the island.
The day Halong Bay cruise from Catba cost us $17 each. Like everything in Vietnam, bargain hard and never accept the first, second, or third offer.
The dock was the first thing to grab my attention. The boards were so small, uneven, and loose. I was not sure the nails were loose, or if things were not nailed down at all. They were swaying as you walked by. And there was nowhere your hands could hold onto to keep your balance. No fence whatsoever. And unfortunately for the last 4 people in the group, the little row boat that took us to the cruise boat from the dock didn’t fit everyone, so they had to be left behind, balancing on the rocking wood planks.
Our cruise boat was quite nice. There was a sleeping cabin with bunk beds and dining room with bench chairs in the bottom floor, and upper deck has roof top as well as roofless area.
After seeing a lot of foggy photos of Halong Bay from our friends that went earlier this year, and expected to a foggy day for us too, I was pleasantly surprised that the sky was nice and clear. Some argue with us that the best view of Halong Bay is when it’s foggy a little bit, adding a mystical flare to the dramatic background, but we really enjoyed the sunny day. Everybody (except for me somehow) slathered themselves with sunscreen.
The cruise was scheduled from 8 to 5, but we wasted 2 hours right at the start of the day. An hour for the late pick up, and another hour for… changing the boat, since our first boat’s machine broke down completely, just a half an hour after we left the dock!
But at least the tour went ahead despite all the delay. Four of the people were already nervous about it. This was the second day they allocated for the cruise. Just yesterday, all trips were canceled due to high winds and waves. And they had to leave tomorrow because they have a flight to catch in Hanoi so this was their last chance.
After a long wait, they transferred us to a smaller and crappier boat. Maybe I should not call this a cruise anymore. The upper deck was pretty much only a roof, with random old cast-off furniture. There was one long wooden bench, and some fake leather sofas. The leathery sofas were dark green, absorbing the heat from the sun really well creating a scorching surface. My sofa’s back rest was broken, and it was leaning against the roof’s railing.
The roof railing has a similar story. It make you feel safer, without actually make you safer, I think. It was probably only 30 cm (12 inches) tall, and it was broken too. You can’t really lean on it or it’d break off. It was actually held up by string to give the illusion of being firmly attached.
It didn’t matter really, the poor quality boat. Just a bit annoyed because it looked like we got less than what we paid for. Oh well. With the beautiful weather we got we could forgive the crummy boat!
We cruised through the dramatic landscape.
Just as we started to feel the dehydrating effects of the sun, the captain called us for lunch.
The lunch was 5-courses-meal with a can of beer accompanying the food. The beer was warm, no refrigeration at all. I really would rather have regular water than hot beer on a hot day. By 5-course-meal, they meant there are 5 different kinds of food. And we were all eating them at the same time. I was really hungry and they were delicious.
At this point, I realized the guys beside me had more than 10 thread bracelets in their left arms. I had 2, both from monks. And these guys didn’t look like temple kind of guys. So I asked, and his answer surprised me: “Vang Vieng!”
Vang Vieng is the wildest backpacker spot for Laos, if not for the whole South East Asia. The landscape is gorgeous, people said, but it’s not why Vang Vieng is famous. It’s famous for river tubing, where along the river is full with bars offering alcoholic drinks and drugs in various shape. There are also crazy swinging rope to the water, where occasionally drunk tourists fall to the rocks in shallow water and pretty much ended their life there.
“We got 1 bracelet each shot!”
So we now can count how many shots he was drinking!
There were 3 caves we supposed to visit that day, but due to the all delays, we only got the chance to see 1. I guess we saw the most attractive one. The Surprise Cave (Sung Sot Cave) was huge, with many cave decorations such as stalactites and stalagmites, illuminated with colorful spotlights. It looked quite magical inside.
The cave has some stop signs to direct the tourists inside. As big as that! And it also has many garbage bins. The intriguing part is, the garbage bins are in the shape of penguins! Why penguins? Why?!?
The cave is beautiful inside and outside. Here’s the outside view:
A toilet horror happened to me afterward. This is the first time I had to use public female toilet without separation between the stalls. I must looked so confused, a lady “invited” me to use the sit toilet beside her. Hmm… group activity? I was concerned because there was no toilet paper in my sight, and stupidly, I forgot to bring my own. I asked her, “toilet paper”? She nodded in ensuring manner, patting her gigantic purse.
As if as comfortable as having a cup of tea in a cafe, the woman dropped her pants. Her undies seemed to be prepared for such an occasion – going toilet together – embroided with colourful flowers. I’m not talking about sexy lingerie. These were thick old lady undies. With embroidery similar to the souvenir purses from the minority ethnicity. I didn’t even know this kind of undies existed!
Anyway, I read her wrong. After I did my business and looking for the toilet paper, I found out that she didn’t have any. In fact, she just stood up and left. HUH?!?!
Have I said, there’s no running water either? Okay, I’ll let your imagination fill in the rest.
The next stop was the swimming stop! Favorite activity includes jumping from the roof top to the water. With the stunning background. Until, the boat started to leak oil covering the surrounding water with a disgusting slick. Back in the boat!
I loved seeing the floating houses drifting by.
Last stop, kayaking!
Such a gorgeous place to kayak, around the floating fishing village. Just don’t fall into the water, it’s not very clean there!
Ryan taking this picture, meaning I was rowing all by myself:
On the way back, our boat bumped into floating house. Anchored and immobile, but somehow our boatman didn’t see it. It was rather silly, but not the only silliness he did.
Beer scam! He tried to collect money from us for the warm beer he distributed during the included lunch, without ever telling that the beer is not included. None of us was willing to pay. He stopped the motor and sat awhile, threatening us that the boat would not move unless we paid. It was not about the money, really. But after being in Vietnam for a while, having so many scammers tried to rip each of us off, we’d all had enough. We were ready to jump off the boat and swim to the floating village nearby.
We sat awhile, neither side willing to budge, until finally he started up and brought us back to port. No friendly goodbye, but a glowering look as we hustled off the ship.
Back in town, everybody complain to their tour agents about the 2 hours of lateness. So we all got compensation. For us, a free motorbike for tomorrow. For the rest, $3 refund.