A tour of Vietnam would not be complete without seeing Halong Bay, a Unesco World Heritage site and also one of the new 7 Natural Wonders of the World, so that was the next stop. An overnight cruise on a Bhaya Cruises ship was the plan. The ride from Hanoi to the harbor was only about 140 km but took close to 4 hours, which says a lot about the pace of traffic here: cars and buses are not allowed to drive more than 40 km/h or something like that when passing through inhabited areas, and since the main roads are dotted with towns and villages, the going is a bit slow.
The ship was finally boarded early in the afternoon and headed out to sea straight away. After a buffet lunch, there was time to admire the incredible scenery, made even more mysterious by the hanging clouds. Barges, junks, cruise ships, floating minimarkets, and small fishing boats spread out among the limestone islands lurking in the mist. Truly a magical place of unbelievable beauty!
The ship made a stop to allow for a short excursion to the cove outside the Dark and Bright Caves by sampan, a local type of rowing boat. A nice way to get closer to the luscious green vegetation covering the islands. Then there was time to take a dip in the sea, lounge about on the ship, or even get a massage in the onboard spa.
As sunset approached, happy hour began with the ship’s bartender whipping up colorful drinks while the chef and cruise host held a cooking class, demonstrating how to prepare Vietnamese spring rolls and how to make flowers out of tomatoes and carrots. Hattivatti and friends focused on enjoying the scenery and the overall unreal feel of the place. Sitting on the deck, sipping a maitai, Hattivatti felt a bit like a character in an Agatha Christie novel, with a touch of a James Bond movie thrown in the mix.
After a dinner which merrily mixed Vietnamese and French cuisines, there was still time to try a local fishing technique for catching squids. Several squids were sighted but unfortunately none took to the bait properly. An interesting experience all the same. The ship was anchored for the night in the darkness, setting the scene for a good night’s sleep.
Early to bed, early to rise: the morning on the ship began with a 6 am tai chi session on the top deck. Although getting out of bed at this hour was not easy, the surreal feeling of watching daylight slowly creep in amongst the islands was definitely worth it, and the light exercise was just the thing to wake the body gently.
After a light breakfast, a little transfer boat took all to the entrance of the Sung Sot Cave, the largest of the caves found so far in Halong Bay. It was discovered only in 1901 by a Frenchman and is called Surprise Cave due to its surprisingly large size, which is not apparent from the entrance. A really beautiful place and not at all wet and chilly like most caves. All kinds of forms can be seen in the stalactite and stalagmite formations, such as faces, fingers, the head of a dragon, and a giant turtle, which locals donate money to in hopes of good fortune.
Then it was time to head back to shore on the ship while enjoying an early brunch. Before heading back to the Hanoi airport, a final stop was made at the showroom of Ha Long Pearl, a pearl farming company with five saltwater pearl farms in the Halong Bay area. An interesting place to learn about the oyster farming techniques developed by the Japanese which have enabled the farming of perfectly round natural pearls of different colors ranging from white and pink to green and black.