Halong Bay and the Cat Ba Islands.
As much as I wanted to embrace Hanoi, I was also tempted to run to the hills for some tranquility. Halong Bay is often cited as one of the most beautiful places to visit in Vietnam and the temptation of spending some time at sea was too much.
In for a penny in for a pound, I chose to go for 3 days and 2 nights. A 4 hour bus trip from Hanoi, before we jumped aboard our boat but it was worth it. I won’t bore you with the boat details but it was a pretty plush ‘Imperial Junk’. We had our own chef, who fed us up with amazing sea treats. Every fish they served they claimed was tuna but I’m pretty certain that was just a language barrier and lots of squid. I attempted a spot of night fishing on the back of the boat, but no joy.
The limestone peaks jet out from the sea, creating one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen. Lying on the roof of the boat, watching the peaks, the birds and later the stars was nothing short of magical. Small boats, lady hawkers rowed up along side our boat to sell treats, well mostly Oreos and Pringles (Seaweed flavour though!). We explored some beautiful caves and kayaked around Halong Bay. We attempted some beach Olympics but it only lasted a few heats of sprint swimming and synchronised handstands. We slept on the boat, it was so peaceful but if you listened really carefully you could just hear the distant sounds of karaoke coming from a more lively boat.
We visited a pearl factory at sea and admired the floating houses and markets in the sea. Now, I’m a little confused by the pearl process after this experience. A team of people operate on the Oyster and insert a small polystyrene ball into it and then place the Oyster back. After 18 months the Oyster is again operated on and a pearl should appear – so the synthetic ball gains it’s colour via the Oyster. I’m not sure how valuable these pearls are but it’s very intricate timely process for a 15% success rate!
Arriving on one of the Cat Ba Islands was one of those experiences I won’t forget. Like a scene from a movie, the beach bungalows were lined up overlooking the bay. We headed straight back out in the kayaks and explored all the little nearby bays. The sea was quite choppy but it was worth battling with the currents to check out the limestone peaks up close. I slept that night, listening to the waves lap against the shore right outside my simple room. Incredible!
On the boat trip back to reality, well Hanoi, which is pretty special in its own way, we had a spring roll making lesson and another feast. All in all a wonderful escape.
The tour options are extensive, everyone’s flogging a trip and they range usually from 1-3 days and the itineraries vary. It’s a bit of a lucky dip as there are good reviews and shocking reviews. So long as you’re happy with what you’re paying and you survive the experience seeing the natural beauty of the bay and the peaks then everyone’s a winner in my opinion. Luckily, the trip I went on couldn’t have been better!