Our minibus comes to pick us up from our guesthouse at 8am. I’m SO happy that we are some of the first on the bus, because with every stop another 2 or 3 people get on. The last stop a family of SIX board the bus and have to sit on fold out chairs. There’s easily 20 on this minibus that probably should hold a max of 12.
It takes about three hours for us to get to Ha Long Bay. Tamara does my hair in a cool fishtail braid. Sweet deal!
When we arrive at the junk we have to stand and wait for what feels like forever. We’ve picked the worst time to come to Ha Long Bay, and we knew it going in, because of this damn holiday that seems to be going on and on and on. Everyone in the North of Vietnam, and some from the South, head to Sapa or Ha Long Bay for the long weekend. The boat station is absolutely packed with tourists, but it gives us an opportunity to meet some other people who will come along with us for the day.
Par hazard (by chance) most of the people on our tour speak French! This should be a good opportunity for me to practice my language skills but it’s a little terrifying. I haven’t spoken proper French in years!
It kind of sucks when we get separated onto different boats while boarding. Our tour guide is not very organized and is VERY stressed. It just seems silly to group people together all morning just to split them up so soon after. So much time wasted on introductions for nothing! Luckily we do get to stick with a couple of our new boat pals, though.
We also meet some new ones over lunch who are, surprise, francophones. I’m going to have to up my French game ASAP.
We are served a seafood lunch on the boat. How appropriate for an oceanic boat tour! Everything is cold…but still seafood! …Okay, so it’s one whole fish and some clams with rice. It’s not the best meal I’ve eaten but it’s still edible.
We are taken to a famous cave in Ha Long Bay. It’s high up on a cliff, and was only discovered in 1993! We follow a slow moving hoard of tourists up the stairs and into the cave. It’s absolutely gigantic, and so so beautiful. Huge stalagmites rise up from the ground 50 feet to the ceiling of the cave. The only downside are the amount of tacky purple, orange and green lights that have been installed to highlight the already incredible natural wonder, and the abundance of trash that’s been littered around the pathway. I wish I had been able to come here in 1993 (without being 1 year old) to see it before the tour companies got to it. The whole of Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has been dubbed one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World, yet somehow it’s still been destroyed by trash. Humans are literally the worst.
I do my very very best to just enjoy being in the cave and to ignore all the negative stuff, but it’s a bit of a challenge. The combination of being bumped into by a million other tourists and the stress I feel about all the garbage makes it tough, but the jaw dropping beauty of the cave makes up for everything.
On our way out, we have to pass through a gift shop. A gift shop on the side of a cliff…really? Ha Long Bay t-shirts, poor quality fresh water pearls, “handmade” wooden carvings, post cards, over priced drinks, you name it.
After passing through the shop we are treated to a beautiful view of the bay. We’ve somehow managed to luck out with the weather again. It’s a fantastic and clear sunny day.
We get back on our boat and are driven around to do some sightseeing. They take us around a floating village, and I am still unsure if the people actually LIVE there full time or if they just have a home where they go to fish. Some even have pet dogs with them on their little floating homes! We don’t get to stop and get out of the boat to see the village, we just drive through it.
The scenery is Ha Long Bay is obviously incredible. You don’t get the title of Natural Wonder of the World for nothing. Massive limestone cliffs are scattered all over the bay, making up a total of 1969 beautiful islands. Lush greenery grows over most of the rocky islands, but I still have yet to understand how this is possible without any visible soil. The contrast between the bright green vegetation, and the light grey and deep onyx layered stone is beautiful.
My only disappointment, that I really just can’t get past, is the unbelievable amount of garbage everywhere! The pollution is repulsive. Everyone blames the tourists, and to some degree this is true, but I see a crew member crush up a can of beer and toss it into the water. I also see a tourist on another boat toss her cigarette off the side of the boat. It really disgusts me to see people being so unconscious of their surroundings, and treating the earth like it’s one big garbage can. Like, what do you think is going to happen to that beer can? It doesn’t biodegrade. It just becomes another eye sore in a place that is supposed to be one of the most beautiful in the world. Not to mention the obvious danger it poses for the wildlife. I hate humans.
After an hour of cruising around the Bay we anchor our boat just off the coast of Cat Ba island (and national park). We will be going there tomorrow, but for the rest of today we will be confined to the boat. We even get to sleep here tonight!
I soon understand why our tour guide has been so stressed all day. They’ve totally over booked this tour, and there aren’t enough rooms for everyone. For half an hour he runs around yelling at people and telling them they’ll have to sleep on the island in a hotel. No one really wants to do that, because all the people we’ve met so far are here. No one wants to be cast off to an island. Tamara and I are lucky enough to be given a key to a cabin, solidifying our spot on the boat for the night. The room is simple, with two single beds, a night table, and a small bathroom.
Out at the front of the boat there are still many people standing around waiting to see if there’s space for them or not. Our tour guide isn’t being very straight forward about anything. Roman and Julian, two of the French guys we met today, have nowhere to sleep, so Tamara and I offer to just push our beds together and squeeze in an extra person. Two of the French girls do the same, and now we can all sleep on the boat tonight and not have to be separated. Some people are still sent off to the island to sleep in a mystery hotel. I’m sure we’ll never see them again.
Our guide thanks us for helping him, and we hope that maybe we’ll be able to get a couple free beers out of the deal.
Once everything is more or less sorted with the rooms, we get to go kayaking and swimming. It’s 5pm so the sun has set, it’s cooling down, and the water is a murky greenish brown. I don’t think I’ll be swimming now. Kayaking, on the other hand, I’m always up for.
Because the tour is over booked we don’t have enough kayaks for everyone, so we only get 30 minutes each to paddle around the area before passing the kayak to the next pair. It’s fun, we just don’t get very far.
Dinner is served at 6:30. ‘Same same not different’ as lunch. Cold kinda seafoody dishes and rice. My fave.
There’s karaoke, a dance floor, and a bar on the boat. Our guide puts on some 90s music and turns it up loud, trying to get a party started. Its only about 8pm and we’re happy to just sit casually outdoors with a beer and chat with everyone on the boat. Our guide continues to remind us that there’s a karaoke machine. We try to get a free bottle of booze to share between the 6 of us that had to squeeze extra people into our rooms, but all we get is one free beer to share between all 6 of us. Thanks bro.
We decide to buy a bottle anyway. We grossly over pay for a bottle of Bacardi (900,000 dong) because we have to drink “comme des pirates” when we are on the boat, obviously. We play games like “What is the Capital Of…” to earn sips of rum from the bottle. Julian gets extra piratey and climbs up the rope ladder on the mast of the boat. Our guide comes out to yell at him, but also to remind us there’s a dance floor and karaoke.
We’re all happier sitting outside and relaxing beneath the stars on a calm warm night in Ha Long Bay.