Today was a day to experience all the transportation options available to humanity. We awoke on our train having slept 5 hours this time. We think our bodies were convinced that they were no longer going to die from the experience. Luckily our hotel picked us up and transported us back in a taxi where we would be able to have 3 hours to nap and shower before leaving on a bus for Ha Long Bay. Upon arriving at the hotel a 5:30 a.m., we were greeted with a large, metal door over the entrance. Looking around, all of the other hotels and shops were in a similar state. We were very confused until our escort pulled out a garage door opener, pressed some buttons, and the door slowly started to rise. Huh, this was a new one. We entered to be greeted by two beds with sheets laid out on the floor and motorbikes where breakfast was normally served. The staff, it seems, sleeps here I guess? The very sleepy receptionist handed us a room key and let us know that we would be leaving for Ha Long Bay at 8:30 a.m. We managed to get a bit of shut-eye, a refreshing shower, and some breakfast in (the motorbikes had been removed by this point) before being picked up by our tour guide who introduced himself as Mr. Lucky. Later, he would tell us later that most foreigners have trouble pronouncing his name so he has chosen a nickname that he hopes we will remember and reflects how all his tours go – no accidents, good weather, etc.
We followed him with our baggage to the bus, and upon entering guess who we found! The Dutch couple from our Sapa stay who we said goodbye to last night before our night train. It turns out that we were a bit premature. After picking up the last of the group, our bus driver expertly navigated the streets of Hanoi and we were off to Ha Long Bay. The 3 hour drive consisted mostly of fields of rice and bananas with a smattering of towns thrown in. At least that’s what we observed when we weren’t sleeping. Halfway into the trip we had a conveniently placed bathroom break at what could effectively be called a tourist trap. The bathrooms were clean and offered toilet paper and soap, something you don’t see very often, but the building itself offered so much more: 3 hour tailoring and a sweatshop of women replicating images in front of them with cross-stitch. While impressive, it was also a bit strange to see them then see a giant plastic cube with “Tips” strewn on the side. The building also offered other toursity items from lacquered objects, to pho broth cubes, to Italian cravats. We didn’t understand that last one. No, we didn’t buy anything and from the looks of it, no one else did except for maybe some water, imitation Pringles, and ice cream. We’ve decided that if they really want to make some money they should sell something that people actually need like sunscreen, those towels that get cold when you crack them, or bubble tea.
We arrived around noon and were told that some of us had booked the Imperial Legend boat and others the Royal Palace. We had no idea and our hotel receipt stating “3 day 2 night – Ha Long Bay” didn’t give any indication either. Luckily Mr. Lucky could direct us. At this point we said goodbye to our Dutch friends one more time since they had apparently booked the Imperial Legend boat and we were on the Royal Palace. A group of 13 of us followed Mr. Lucky to a small boat with our luggage, was provided with a life vest (safety first), and took the 5 minute ride out to the Royal Palace. This boat had seen better days but that isn’t to say that it was lacking for charm. No the Asian stylized 3 story boat that greeted us with drums, would be our lovely home for the night. We boarded and were brought to the dining room on the second floor to retrieve our room keys and have a quick break before lunch was served. Doug and I got lucky number 201 which just so happens to be on the first floor – not what you would expect. Mr. Lucky, it seems, had upgraded us to a family room with both a double bed and single bed along with a bathroom that looked better than ours at home, even if it wasn’t constructed as nicely. Upon first use, it was discovered that the faucet was just a bit too short and if the boat leaned just slightly, all of the water would end up outside the sink. We put our engineering skills to good use and stuffed a washcloth next to the faucet to prevent this from running onto the floor. We are so smart.
While we luncheoned on far too much food, the Royal Palace began cruising along Ha Long Bay. The bay consists of 1969 limestone islands covered with greenery and wildlife and it is all beautiful even if Mr. Lucky insists that the section we will visit is “the most beautiful.” 2 hours was spent cruising before stopping the boat to visit a fishing village and do some kayaking. The fishing village was not a village at all but a single shack floating on 55 gal barrels and surrounded by smaller boats going to and from it with tourists who could take out the kayaks also attached to it. The two of us promptly got into a kayak together and took off to spend the next hour exploring the little cove that the “village” was placed in. We kayaked along the limestone cliffs attempting to spot caves but finding a lot of trash instead. The best part, though, was when Mr. Lucky pointed to a tree on one island that was rustling. Upon closer inspection we saw that there were monkeys in the tree! Silly monkeys! Mr. Lucky let us know that this is the first time he has been able to see them so I guess he is lucky after all!
After our 1 hour kayaking we were ushered into a pearl farm where you could learn a bit about how they harvest them and seed them, but mostly you could buy jewelry. Again, no one bought anything. We got back to the Royal Palace and were told that it was now time to swim. Doug promptly changed and did an expert dive into the water before confirming for Lynn that the water was quite warm and refreshing. The two of us and the rest of the boat swam around for quite a while enjoying the scenery of islands and Vietnamese junk boats and simultaneously practicing our floating in the very salty sea. As the sun began to set we got out and took to the sundeck to attempt to capture it but clouds had started to move in so all we saw was the reflection turn a muted yellow then very dark as a storm started to roll in and flash lightning all around us.
A short time later we were seated once again at dinner where we feasted on many courses of pork, squid, chicken, and even drunken prawns. Luckily nature was well timed and the rain rolled in right at this point and ended with dinner. Post meal we were told there would be night time squid fishing so the two of us promptly went to the lower deck to have a try. Mr. Lucky was there with an Australian where he was providing some instruction. He handed us a bamboo pole with some fishing line with a shrimp-looking hook on the end of it. We were told that the squid doesn’t need bait, but does need to think that the line is a real-life squid so we were instructed to bob the pole up and down in the light of the ship. Doug and I did this for some time with others without so much as a bite. At this point Lynn turned to Mr. Lucky and asked how many of these get caught a night. His response, “Oh, no one catches any. There are too many lights around from all the junks.” At this moment we both looked up to see a number of other ship decks festooned with tourists bobbing bamboo poles up and down and were then convinced that this is just a game that the ship operators play to see how many of their customers they can get to take part. Well, you win Royal Palace!
Post squid fishing we took to the deck for some relaxing and mingling with the other guests. We were surprised to find 2 other people who had been to Mongolia previously and got a few pointers from the Australians for when we’d finally be in there country. At about 10 p.m. it was time for bed so we tucked ourselves away to the sound of the nearby ship generator.
Daily Walking Mileage: Maybe 1 mile (the Vietnamese roads are littered with many small speed bumps that threw off our system), but we did kayak and swim for an hour each
- Ha Long Bay also did not get affected by the typhoon so the days we were suppose to be in the area originally were sunny and warm.
- There are only two places in the world where you can see such scenery. Ha Long Bay is by far the largest and most visited, but there is also Phang Nga Bay in Thailand.
- What are drunken prawns? As our boat’s chef demonstrated, they are steamed prawns in vodka and seem to be very popular since we had them pretty much every meal.