Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Halong Bay - Johnny ain't no Jack Sparrow

We were very excited about our Halong Bay trip, as every other traveller raves about it constantly. We weren't sure which travel agent to use for our tour, since they are a dime a dozen in Hanoi and all seem pretty much the same. One of them was called 'Kangaroo Travel' and had an Aussie flag displayed inside, so we figured that was a good enough reason as any other. We were browsing brochures inside, when a fellow Aussie traveller came in to talk to the travel agent. She told us that the travel agent, Ms Nga, was very good and had organised a brilliant Halong Bay tour for her, where she got to stay aboard the "Black Pearl" in a deluxe room. This recommendation was enough for us, so we got Ms Nga to book the same for us.

It was a three and a half hour bus ride to Halong City, where we were taken to a small motor boat by our guide 'Johnny'. One of the Irish girls jokingly complained to Johnny that 'this isn't the Black Pearl!'. However, it did take us to the Black Pearl, which wasn't really the Black Pearl, just a traditional Vietnamese junk that said 'Black Pearl' on the front. When I say traditional, it only looked traditional. I'm sure that a traditional junk would have used sails instead of a motor engine and probably wouldn't have electricity or air conditioning in the rooms. Although, to be fair, the electricity only ran from 5pm to 6am and the air conditioning only kicked in at 9pm.

Our room was gorgeous, with dark wood panelling, satin drapes and magnificent views of the bay. The bay itself is amazing, with turquoise water dotted with hundreds of tiny islands and rock formations. It was slightly overcast but there was also a good amount of blue sky, which we have learnt not to take for granted. Below you can take a look at a photo Michael pieced together from individual photos taken in all directions. As you pan the photo from left to right, you can get an idea of what it looks like to turn your head 360 degrees within the bay. (There are higher quality versions of this photo on the flickr page. Click here to see a higher quality version of the photo or click here to see a really high quality version of the photo)

We started off with lunch on the boat, where we introduced ourselves to the rest of the people on-board. There were 9 of us in total, all around the same age. There were two Irish girls and one Irish guy, one Scottish girl, a Canadian bloke and a Singaporean couple. 

After lunch we left the boat for some kayaking and to visit the Cave of Surprises. The cave was very surprising because it was not at all what we expected. It was enormous and took us about half an hour to walk from one side to the other. It seemed as though the entire island was hollow inside!
Some of the stalactites and stalagmites formed some interesting shapes, and Johnny was quick to point out the more humorous ones. Other tour guides were pointing out dragons, snakes, Buddhas etc and telling their groups about the various legends surrounding the shapes, so one of the Irish girls complained to Johnny that he wasn't doing a very good job, who replied that the other tour guides were just making stuff up. She said that he should try making it up too, then pointed to a stalagmite and asked him to tell us what it was, to which he replied "it's a rock". 

After the cave we did some kayaking around the bay, then we went back to the junk for some swimming and relaxation. Unfortunately, it was not so relaxing for me, as I was convinced by the group to jump off the top level of the boat, which was a height of about two and a half storeys. Despite their assurances, I did not find the experience 'fun', and Michael ended up having to swim me back to the boat because I was so traumatised. I definitely wouldn't do it again, although I'm glad I did, since I would have been the only person on the boat who didn't. I didn't go back in the water after that, but retired to a deckchair with my book and a glass of wine, which was much more suited to my tastes.

Then we were treated to a delicious seafood dinner (this time we stayed away from the shrimp), followed by fresh fruit. After dinner we moved up to the top deck, where Michael and I were enjoying our pina coladas. We were disappointed that no-one else was joining us, most of them sticking to bottled water. Even so, the Irish girls were getting progressively harder to understand, so we were not surprised to find out that the clear liquid in the water bottle was not in fact water but vodka.

Things escalated until one of the Irish girls decided that jumping from the top deck into the pitch black sea sounded like a great idea. The Canadian bloke joined her and we were then joined by Johnny who gave us a sound telling off. Eventually we made our way back to our rooms, glad to find that the air-con had kicked in. 

The next morning we said goodbye to the rest of the group, except for the Singaporean couple, as they left to go to Cat Ba Island and we were headed back to the mainland. The rest of the morning was pretty boring to be honest, as we were stuck outside on the deck (we had to check out of our room) until the boat got back to the jetty at about noon.

Then we were taken to a restaurant for a very average lunch before being loaded onto the bus for the three and a half hour ride back to Hanoi. All in all it was a great experience, however I think that we were slightly let because everyone talks it up like it is the best thing since sliced bread. The trip was spoiled to some extent by the number of other boats, there were literally hundreds of other junks floating around the bay, and also by the lack of activities on the second day. However, the view was amazing and we really enjoyed the kayaking, the cave, the food and the company of the other people on our boat, although I must admit that I was disappointed that Jack Sparrow did not make an appearance.


  1. Jennifer; Please don't do anymore jumping from great heights, (even if it was on The Black Pearl) you're giving me gray hair!!!!
    Love Mum xox

  2. Sounds like another great adventure and the seafood plus wine sounds like our lifestyle.