13. Halong Bay – exploring a wonder of the world

12/12 – 14/12

After all the fun in Hanoi I was looking forward to my trip to Halong Bay. In the end I decided to book with Viola Cruise as the reviews were good and the itinerary was perfect for me.

I checked other cruises as well, but their itinerary didn’t appeal (sitting on a beach or rock climbing is not a reason to go to Halong Bay for me).

The itinerary of Viola Cruise was the following:

Day 1: Hanoi – Halong Bay – Cua Van Floating Village – Soi Sim Beach
Day 2: Viola Cruise – Day & Night Grotto – Ho Dong Tien Cave
Day 3: Viola Cruise – Sung Sot Cave – Halong Bay – Hanoi

After a rather short night (but surprisingly felt well after the drinks from the night before) I was picked up after 8am. I managed to sleep most of the way to Halong Bay. There is a stop half way for a toilet break, and also to buy any of the souvenirs on offer.

With some anticipation in the bus we got the first view of the bay when crossing the bridge, and soon enough we were out of the bus – ready to check in. Or so we thought!!!

Without any warning we were advised that the cruise was cancelled due to bad weather. Bad weather? The sun was shining, only a bit wind, no clouds in sight. Also, we saw other tourists leaving to their boat. Slightly shocked and understandable disappointed we tried to find out the options – which only took some time while we were sitting in their lounge gob-smacked. Well – we got two options:

1.
Do a day trip (the warning was now only for the overnight on board of the ship. We
would get a partial refund from our travel agents). If the weather becomes better, we could stay on board – but no guarantee

2.
Go back to Hanoi (refund from the agency, but no help to find a hotel etc.). You could also stay in HB town and come back the next day for the cruise.

As I had plenty of time I was actually considering staying a night in town – could save the same bus journey all over again. Others in the group were less lucky (had to go home or had other things booked). While we had a conversation within the group we were offered to get to the boat and have at least lunch. That sounded good, until someone asked if we get charged – yes, $10 pp. Not even considering the trip was cancelled, they still wanted some of our money to cover the lunch they already prepared.

The female guide who was with us was absolute out of her comfort zone, and really was no help at all (except of getting us to the boat for lunch). At some point she tried to force us to a response, and I just mentioned that we still talking, and if she can check with the agency again. She was clearly not happy about that and was slightly rude to us, to which I responded that we just want all information before we leave. She clearly didn’t expect that tourists are not just doing what she told them. Well – the cruise was not cheap, and for many a once-in-a-life-time experience.

But wait – after nearly an hour waiting we were told that we can go to board, and that the cruise is back on. Well, why not. So I made my way to the landing boat to get to the junk. Others were still weary if this was just another attempt to get us onto board, but in the end everyone joined us.

I think everyone was happy that it went ahead, but there was still some disappointment. We still had the feeling that the company tried to cancel it for some non-weather related issue (I heard this happened on other cruises in the past). Anyhow, from the little boat we got the first look at our junk. It was stated on the website that is brand new – by the look of it is definitely not brand new – but it looked good.

We were greeted by the staff (who was absolute fantastic over the next three days), and we got to the nice looking dining area on the first floor for lunch. The buffet style lunch was very good and enjoyable. While the food was included, drinks was extra but I found the prices not too high (I think I paid over three days £15 for drinks – including several beers).

During lunch the ship started the journey for the bay were it will anchor for the night – so I had time to get to know the other guests. It turned out that only a couple from Spain was doing the same itinerary as I did – everyone else was only there for one night. Thankfully, the couple, Ana and Martin, was very nice and we got on very well.

The journey to our ‘resting place’ took around three hours, so it was plenty of time to check out the ship. My cabin was great, nicely decorated and very clean. The highlight for me was the view though. I was on the ground floor, but had a long window to enjoy the stunning view Halong Bay has to offer. As I found out later – it is a great way to wake up in the morning.

On the top floor the ship has a sun deck, with chairs and benches. While it was too cold for sun bathing it was a great place for me to sit down and enjoy the view. You hear a lot about Halong Bay – but seeing all the limestone karsts coming out of the water is majestic, and just beautiful. Add the relative silence (except of the engine) it was a great spot to relax.

Around 3.30pm we arrived at our spot, and you already got an impression how many boats there are – lots! While it looks crowded, I didn’t hear a lot of noise in the evening, and you could only see the lights of the ships during the night. Otherwise I wasn’t really bothered by it. Not with such a view.

Due to the delay in the harbour the itinerary was slightly changed. We would visit Sung Sot cave and Soi Sim beach in the afternoon, and head to the floating village in the morning.


So we headed to Sung Sot Cave (Surprise Cave). You reach the cave by climbing lots of stairs – and I mean a lot. But you get rewarded with a beautiful cave that includes several chambers. It is difficult to believe that this was all created by nature – the high ceiling, the different rock formation. It is very popular with tourists (the most crowded place I have been to in Halong Bay), but this is understandable. You wouldn’t like to miss it. I am still a bit surprised about the Penguin shaped bins in the cave. I understand dolphins. But penguins, really? Even in winter it is still too warm to think about penguins. The one advantage to be in a group is that people can take pictures of each other (very handy for solo travellers), and I worked well with a Brazilian who was on her own as well. After you leave the cave you have a great view point over the surrounding area – the perfect place for photos. After I managed to take a very good picture of her it was her turn. But it didn’t work – it was too dark. She tried it with her camera – too dark again. Two random girls standing around tried as well (one with my camera, one with her own) – so suddenly I had three cameras pointing at me. Some other tourists coming out thought I must be someone famous – and took pictures of me as well. It was fun to pose for so many cameras though. I doubt that will ever happen again.

Following the Surprise Cave we went to a little island where you could go swimming or climb a little hill for a nice view. As it was cold, I went up to the hill – climbing even more stairs again. I really started to hate stairs!!! But once again, the view you got from the top was worth every little effort to walk – it was just beautiful. The sunset also started while we were at the top, which was a nice extra.

Being back on the beach I thought it would be a shame not going into the water. Not having a towel or shorts with me I just went in with my feet, while some other people from other ships were swimming behind me. I wished they would have told me that there was a gap in the water. So instead of being only with my feet in the water, I was in nearly waist deep (thankfully I left my money and phone and camera outside of the water). I heard everyone around me laughing (I was told that people waiting in our boat saw it too – and found the whole thing hilarious!!!). Well – I used the chance to swim for a minute or so, before going back to the boat soaking. At least I got some applause from the others in the water – they clearly enjoyed the show. Fortunately (or rather unfortunately) Ana took my camera and took pictures – just when I fell in. So I am sure I won’t forget that moment!!!

After a (very freezing) 15 minutes we were back on board of the ship, and they had some canapés and drinks waiting for us on sun deck. We were joined by the guests who were here for their second night, and a nice way to spend time before dinner.

The dinner for the first night can only be described as amazing, superb, awesome and delicious. The food included prawns, crab, squid and other sea food – served in a very imaginative way. The theme was how the food was served at the royal court – using only food from the sea. And there were seven courses. I didn’t see one unhappy face on my table. One of the best meals I had during my travels for sure. Oh, and if you don’t like fish or seafood, meat and vegetables will be served. Not as impressive as the seafood, but still good (as I found out the next day…).

After dinner you could sit around the dining area to have a chat, or drink a beer, or you could try your luck with squid fishing. We all tried – and we all failed. But it was a bit cold anyway, so we didn’t try for very long- and instead had an early night.

The next morning I woke up with a fabulous view of Halong Bay from my bed. I am not a morning person, but even I had to smile when I saw this scenery. Before heading to the floating village we had breakfast with a selection of cold meat on the table and a small selection of sausage, and eggs from the buffet. Simple but nice. It was then time to get back to our landing boat and we headed to one of the floating villages of Halong Bay – Cua Van. You actually had to the local pier. There you have the choice to either get your own kayak, or join the others in small boats were locals row you around the village. It was too early for me, so I decided to sit back and let others do the rowing work.

Cua Van village here is actually not very big, but it is nonetheless an interesting experience to see the houses and how the people live there. They have some small shops, but grocery is usually sold by boats. You could see one or two boats full of drinks, foods and other items rowing around. Even so it is a bit touristy (taking pictures of you when you arrive on the pier so you can buy it, or selling souvenirs – but the money supports the village which is a good thing) it is still nice to visit it.

We returned to the junk, and while it was time for most of the others to return to Halong Bay Town, Ana, Martin and I were transferred to a smaller day boat that would bring us to the various places that was on our itinerary for day 2. The boat had a seating area with tables and benches on the ground, and a sun deck with some comfy chairs on the top. Despite being advertised to have English speaking guide none of the two guides that arrived with us yesterday came with us. Instead we had a local from the area who spoke hardly any English (he was also the skipper, and the female chef didn’t speak any English). This was just another proof that the management of the company is very poor. I would expect one guide to be with us for the full three days. Instead we got a guide for day 1, another one (without any good English skills for the full day on day 2, and a third one we met in the evening. In my view this is quite poor and bad service.

Anyhow, while the day boat is not as luxurious as the main ship, it was nice for a relaxing trip around Halong Bay. Our first stop was the Pearl farm. I must admit I am not very interested in pearls, but it was nonetheless interesting to see how the farm works, and the differences between the various pearls. As we arrived relatively early (before 10am), we were the only three tourists. Great! At the end of the tour you have then the opportunity to go shopping (bring your credit card with you!!!).

After the pearl farm we headed towards the Day & Night Grotto. It took us around 2 hours to get there, but you saw more and more why Halong Bay is one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World. The different shapes of the karsts formation are beautiful, and the view wasn’t spoiled by any boats. We actually didn’t see any tourist boats between the pearl farm and the cave.

The grotto is situated in a little quiet bay. And it is actually not a cave, but a rather a series of little bays connected by little tunnels you have to kayak through. Yep – this time we kayaked. I shared one with our guide, and Ana and Martin were on the second. It was actually lovely to kayak around the area, and it was not full of tourists (I think two other boats were there with 20 tourists – so it was still peaceful). We were also lucky to spot some wild monkeys. But unfortunately during this part of the trip you could note the difficulties of a non-English speaking guide. No information could be provided, and I actually had to tell him to stop from time to time to wait for the other two. An experienced guide should never lose others out of his sight.

Back on our boat we had some time before lunch – so crazy as we were we went swimming. It was actually cold at the start, but after a while it was lovely, and quite refreshing. In the water you actually got a better impression how big the rocks are – I was maybe 5 metres away from the others, and it was incredible to see their heads out of the water while in front of the cliffs. It really hits you what an incredible site Halong Bay is.

After our longer than expected swim session it was time for lunch that was prepared on board. Once again the food didn’t disappoint. The fish, prawns and vegetables were just delicious and full of flavour.

With our bellies filled it was time to say goodbye to this area, and we headed towards our final destination Ho Dong Tien Cave (Fairy Lake Cave). Once again the journey was a bit longer, so it was great to make yourself comfortable on a nice loungers and enjoy the changing scenery (well, getting constantly fresh water melon was a plus as well). In case I haven’t mentioned it so far – the scenery was just stunning, and I really didn’t get tired looking at it.

We finally arrived at Ho Dong Tien Cave. The name Fairy Lake Cave comes from the little lake / pond you see when walking out of the other side of the cave, which looks actually very nice. But the cave itself is the interesting part. While at the starts it looks like other caves I have seen (nice nonetheless), the highlight was getting through some very tight entrances to get to some chambers inside the rocks. It was pitch dark inside, very hot – and reminded me a bit of one of the Alien movies. I fully understand why it is suggested that people who are claustrophobic should not go in here. Another plus was – there were no other tourists. Not a single one. We had the whole cave for ourselves for an hour. Overall it was great way to finish our day trip.

 

After the cave we just headed back to the Viola junk. After arriving we still had plenty of time before dinner, so I used the time wisely and made myself comfortable on a lounger on the sun deck, and enjoying the view – and the peaceful surroundings. Great way to relax I must admit.

Then it was time for dinner. After yesterday’s feast I was looking forward to the repeat. But unfortunately (in my opinion) the company has listened to some comments and to avoid repetition (who really complains about repeating a great meal???? Thanks for nothing!!!) people on their second night got a different set of meal. Instead of prawns, fish and crab, we got chicken, pork and other similar dishes. Don’t get me wrong, it tasted great – but in comparison to the food everyone else (12 more people arrived for a 2 day trip) got it looked a bit disappointing. Well – I still enjoyed it though in the end.

After dinner no one was interested in squid fishing – instead the Karaoke machine was switched on, and the singing started. It was actually a good laugh, and everyone fully enjoyed it. To make sure everyone could sleep the machine was switched off between 22:00 and 22:30.

 

For a final time I woke up with a stunning view from my bed, and after the same breakfast I used the time to enjoy the comfort of the lounger on the sun deck. In the morning we had then the chance to learn how to prepare spring rolls, which was a good laugh again. There was a bit of competition of who made the best one. As we had to eat them, everyone took it very serious (even my companion on my head!!!)

Before lunch we had then the opportunity to dress up as king and queen to takes pictures, which everyone did (well nearly everyone). I don’t know why, but during the cooking class and the photo shoot everyone took pictures of me. I just wonder!!!!

After a typical Vietnamese lunch – including our spring rolls (once again the food was just great – the people working in the kitchen really know about food!) we arrived back in Halong Bay Town, and it was time to say bye to the staff who worked very hard to make it an enjoyable trip (always smiling, always polite, and doing their utmost best to make the trip great – including making jokes about me!!!!). I really had a great time on board.

We were then back on our way to Hanoi. Unfortunately this time I didn’t sleep during the journey – and I really wish I could have. I was in the back row, so had a good view of the traffic ahead of us, and I might have died 4 or 5 times by heart attack, as our driver drove like a mad man. He even tried to squeeze between two lorries to overtake one of them. Not even a car would have fit between those two. I understood now why people warn from bus travel in Vietnam!!!

Around 4:30 we arrived in Hanoi – in one piece (I was actually slightly surprised!!!). Before we left for Hanoi I had a long conversation with the guide about one simple question – can you drop me off at the train station? He actually refused initially, stating he had to bring me back to my hotel (where I no longer stay). I understand they don’t want to drop people off outside the Old Quarter, but the train station really is not that
far from it (considering one couple was dropped off near the station anyway). Personally I thought it was ridiculous to make such a big deal out of it (especially as we still had one apology about the cancellation malarkey). In the end they decided to drop me off near the station, which was fine.

After getting my ticket for Ninh Binh I managed to go to a Bia Hoi place in Hanoi for a last time, and ending my trip to Hanoi and Halong Bay in style.

Overall I must say that I love Halong Bay. Yes, it is full of tourists, but this is for a reason – to see one of the most beautiful natural sceneries in the world. It is just stunning. But to fully enjoy it you must make sure that you have a cruise with an itinerary that suits your needs. Also, there is no cheap work around – you get what you pay for.

I was happy with the itinerary of Viola Cruise, the junk was great, food was fantastic and the staff is very helpful. However, the management is a big let down. From the supposed cancellation, no consistency with guides (three or four guides in 3 days is too much – especially if the important one for the day trip can hardly speak any English) and making a big deal of a drop off at the train station, whenever you deal with them it never ends well. This is a shame as everything was fantastic and would recommend Viola Cruise – as long you don’t rely on their management.

Accommodation:
The Viola Junk is very good, and the cabins were faultless. The big window is a fantastic, the bed is comfortable, and the bathroom is very clean. The other parts of the ship are very nice as well. From the spacious dining area, to the sun deck to sit back and enjoy the scenery (weather permitting). The itinerary is great as it covers the various areas of Halong Bay, and you really see a lot. Add great food (first night better than second), a cooking class and friendly staff and you have a winning formula. Just avoid dealing with the management as much as possible.

Recommendation:
Firstly, if you are in North Vietnam, and have the time for a 3 day trip, do it. My favourite part of the itinerary was the second day, as you see the Bay in more details. For me spending 24 hours (leaving the harbour around lunch time, and arriving back around lunch time the next day would be far too short). This extra day is definitely worth spending a bit more for this trip. Also, check the itinerary. There are so many cruises so make sure you choose one that offers an itinerary that covers your interest. And especially for Halong Bay the old saying is spot on: you get what you pay for.

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