Today was another early start – a 5:45am alarm to be precise. Don’t come on this holiday if you like lie- ins!!
I had requested an iron from the hotel the night before, and was told they would bring it at 6, since the housekeeping staff weren’t working at night. It never came, so I put on a crinkled shirt and went down for breakfast. These hotel breakfasts are so impressive but I’m eating less and less at them- I guess it’s natural that you don’t need to overindulge when each day there is more and more amazing food!
At 6:30 we met our guide for Hanoi and Ha Long Bay – Duk Lee. He’s local to Hanoi and works for a third party tour company who G-adventures contract in Vietnam (Wide Eye Tours). He arrived a little bit late so we were already getting onto the minibus before his introduction, but we had a short ride before the first stop – Ho Chi Minhs mausoleum. It was only a few minutes ride from the hotel, and once we got out of the bus we had a lot of queuing and waiting around for permission to go for our visit.
It was an amazing place to visit. We didn’t have time to actually go into the mausoleum itself, since the queue can be 3-4 hours even if you arrive at 7am – instead we just visited the outside which in itself was imposing and impressive. The building was designed by the Russians and it had a truly communist feel. Visitors travel from across Vietnam daily to pay their respects to Ho Chi Minh and to deliver flowers and gifts to him. They have a special ‘VIP’ queue which is only a couple of hours, for those from hill tribes who make a special effort to get there – sometimes travelling 2-3 days to get to the mausoleum. It’s hard to overemphasise the presence Ho Chi Minh has here, even posthumerously.
Our visit was relatively short since we had a long journey ahead – 4 hours infact, to get to Ha Long Bay. By 7:45 we were on the road, settling down in our air conditioned bus for the long slog.
The bus ride wasn’t the most amazing part of the trip – I processed some of the photos from earlier and in the trip and watched a movie on my iPad, as well as napping a little. It was interesting to see all the streets of Vietnam passing by, with their motorcycle obsession and amazing use of space – there were all sorts of shops on the road side, hoping for weary travelers to stop by and buy whatever weird thing they were selling.
After just over 4 hours we arrived at the pier for our boat cruise in Ha Long Bay. There were hundreds of boats parked up and our bus drove past most of them to arrive at our cruise, which was parked up right at the end. I half expected to end up in a dinghy after we passed some huge cruise boats and the boats decreased in size but Duc explained that our boat is only for us, so it’s quite a small one since we’re only 10 people.
After a quick toilet stop on land, we boarded our junk boat for the overnight cruise.The junk boats name comes from the French Junk, not the English Junk – they’re wooden boats. We were presented with a welcome drink made with passion fruit and then we were shown to our rooms before we embarked on our journey.
I had my own room, complete with two single beds, life jacket, hammer, torch and private bathroom. It was actually pretty cosy and I settled down there for a few minutes before our lunch was served on the middle deck.
As well as being crew to the boat, the cruise staff also doubled as waiting staff, barman and chef and the food was actually really impressive – fresh seafood for most and tofu for me, with rice, vegetables and lots of other things. By the end of lunch I felt stuffed!
As we ate lunch, the boat cruised out to the famous islands and we all agreed that this was probably the most spectacular scenery we’d all eaten in. The meal was accompanied with a free glass of wine, and then we had a choice to buy more from the bar if we wanted – the barman kept a tab for each of our rooms and we could settle at the end, just like a hotel.
Once lunch was done we got some really nice relaxing cruise time in with the stunning scenery accompanying us. Dek and Duc (I only just realised that when writing this up) interjected occasionally with facts and comments about the bay (there are over 1300 islands!) but in general it was just chilled out and relaxing – a huge change from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi the night before.
In the early afternoon our boat pulled in to a small habour and we disembarked to go visit the Thien Cung caves, which are a small set of caves open to visitors for 50,000 dong ($2) per visit.
The caves were discovered a couple of decades ago and when they were found, they were occupied by monkeys. Now they’ve been cleared out and lit and turned into a pretty spectacular tourist attraction, which was totally unexpected! The cool but humid air was a welcome break from the heat of the bay too.
Unfortunately whilst enjoying the caves, one of our group (Fred) stepped backwards off a small pathway and fell and hurt his wrist. We won’t know how serious it is until we get back to land tomorrow, but he seems to be in quite a lot of pain – but Dec responded brilliantly taking him down to the boat immediately and getting it on ice, whilst Duc looked after us through the rest of the cave. I really admire a company like Gadventures in a situation like this, taking care and calming the situation whilst still ensuring that everyone is enjoying themselves (even Fred seemed to be enjoying himself although with a slightly limp wrist once we got back on the boat – I suspect a break 😦 )
After the caves, we had a choice of optional activities – kayaking or being rowed by someone else into a small lagoon. Jackie and I chose to do the kayaking, whilst the rest of the group took the rowing option – wimps! The kayaking was so much fun!!! We jumped into the kayak which was brought alongside the boat by a local guy and then off we went – through a small tunnel and into the lagoon. We actually got to kayak for ages – around 90 minutes – for 250,000 dong ($12!)
By the time kayaking was finished, it was almost sunset and Jackie and I had to chase the main boat back to our mooring position to finish our kayaking adventure. This was by far one of my highlights of the trip – even if I and my camera were absolutely soaking by the end of it.
After we showered and cleaned up from the kayaking it was time for dinner, which was similar to lunch but still impressive being served on a boat in the middle of the ocean. We all enjoyed it and as we ate, the sun set to give us amazing vista of the other boats in the area. We finished dinner with some drinks from the bar and a spot of squid fishing until the generator on the boat had a bit of a fit and the light to attract the squid conked out, putting an abrupt end to that activity.
My favourite part of the night was heading up to the top deck sun loungers to lie and look up to the stars. Since we were so far from land, the sky was clear and there were thousands of stars in the sky to enjoy. You don’t get a photo of that though, because a moving boat doesn’t make an awesome tripod.
What a wonderful and relaxing day. I went to bed super happy.