I actually booked the trip at Sinh Cafe Travel on the first day I arrived in Hanoi. The price for the one-day trip was US$25 per person.
After an early breakfast at our hotel, we waited for the tour guide who came at around 8am. We were among the early ones so the tour bus was quite empty when we boarded it. However, it filled up pretty fast as the bus went round to other hotels to pick up more passengers.
Halong Bay is about 3 hours from Hanoi, but due to the picking up of passengers and a stop midway at a souvenir shop, we only reached our destination after 4 hours.
I did not buy anything at the souvenir shop. Instead I spent my time taking pictures of these statues outside the shop. LOL!
My friend bought something (I could not remember what) which I expected as he always buys something at souvenir shops. LOL!
The place was filled with statues and stone carvings.
I like this Buddha statue.
So after some half an hour or so wasting my time walking around, it was time to board the bus again.
Oh look! One of the passengers wore a Mickey Mouse hat! Haha.
Our bus reached the Bai Chay Tourist Wharf at about 12.30pm. If we had not stopped at the souvenir shop, we would have reached here much earlier. I guess you could never skip a souvenir shop when you follow tours right?
Here, we waited to board our junk boat. But first, our tour guide gave us our tickets. She said to keep them as souvenirs. I was fine with that until I saw the price on the ticket - only 80,000 VND (US$3.75) and we paid the tour agent US$25!
Of course, I did not factor in the cost of the bus transportation from Hanoi and back, but it would definitely be much cheaper if my friend and I were to go on our own. However, following the tour group was really not a bad idea at all as it would be less of a hassle to book the boat on our own.
There were a lot of people at this tourist wharf. In fact it was quite crowded with tourists from all over the world, and of course the local Vietnamese people too. During the waiting period, I did some people watching and was able to categorize the tourists into backpackers, family travellers and the wealthy tourists.
Look at the row of junk boats lining up at the wharf!
We did not sit in those type of boat. I guess they were much cheaper.
Instead, our boat looked something like these in the picture below.
This is our boat - the one on the right with the name 'Hai Thanh 18' (word partly blocked in the picture).
We entered the boat. The young lady in blue jacket (second person from left) is our tour guide.
Once everyone got on board the boat (I think there were altogether about 20 of us), the cruise officially began!
Halong Bay looks like the stuff of legends! Ha Long actually means 'Descending Dragon'. According to a legend, a celestial dragon once flung itself into the sea, creating deep valleys and crevices in the earth, and Halong Bay was born.
Somehow, this Halong Bay cruise reminded me of a very similar cruise I had in Guilin, China 5 years ago. Read about my Li River cruise HERE.
Both were amazing in terms of the scenery but the difference was that it was much colder in Halong Bay. But that's because I went for the Li River Cruise in Guilin during summer! And I was in Halong Bay during the colder month of March.
Even the mountain karsts in Halong Bay were partly shrouded in mists, which made them look somewhat ethereal.
I believe that if I were to go on this cruise a month or two earlier, it would be quite difficult to see the mountains properly. The mists would probably be too thick.
I guess I must have chosen the perfect time to visit this amazing national treasure of Vietnam! Although some people would prefer it to be all sunny and clear skies. Well, not me haha!
I think if I had not visited Li River in Guilin before, I would be very impressed with Halong Bay.
There were many other boats plying the same route.
Everyone was admiring the beautiful scenery all around and busy taking pictures.
I was busy snapping pictures too. You won't believe how many photos I took!
Meals were provided on the cruise. I did not take any photos of the food as they were nothing really special. Since my friend and I sat at the same table with a Japanese couple and their two children, we had some fun talking to them.
I also made friends with tourists from Turkmenistan, Laos, Canada and Hong Kong. So many different nationalities on our boat!
Soon, we arrived at a fishing village.
Yes, a fishing village in the middle of nowhere. Or so it seemed to me.
According to our tour guide, we would be stopping here for about 2 hours.
Our boat docked at a floating platform.
What were we going to do here for 2 hours? Well, it was time to do some kayaking! We were given life jackets to put on.
You can choose to go kayaking, or sit on a small sampan while someone does the rowing. Or you can simply choose to stay on the floating platform and just enjoy the scenery and do absolutely nothing!
I thought it would be such a waste if I just stayed back on the floating platform while watching the others enjoy themselves on the water, so I chose kayaking. That, despite not knowing how to swim or even how to use that double-bladed paddle. LOL!
My friend was not as adventurous as me and he chose to relax on the sampan with another tourist. Actually I did not mind going for that too. It would be nice just to relax, so why the hell did I choose kayaking?! I almost regretted my decision.
The Japanese couple with their two children on the sampan. How nice relaxing on a sampan!
Empty sampan waiting for someone to get on it. That won't be me of course, as you need to pay tips to the rower and I did not want to bear the entire cost with no one to share with me. Haha!
OK, I just got to take this picture.
Simply because the person was wearing a conical hat on a sampan on the waters of Halong Bay. Conical hats are so synonymous with Vietnam that you just cannot NOT snap this picture! LOL.
Before I jumped into a kayak, I took some time to observe how the others fare.
There can only be 2 people on a kayak. And I was alone. Worse, I do not know how to kayak. So how would I be able to go kayaking? It would be an almost impossible feat!
Luckily, my tour guide noticed my problem and got a fisherman to go kayaking with me. For free. Wow! How nice of her! Thank you so much!
So I sat in front, and the fisherman (sorry did not know his name even after he introduced himself. I was extremely nervous!! Haha!) sat at the back. He did most of the paddling. I just held the paddle and did some random rowing.
From this point onwards, please excuse me if the photos are not as sharp as they should be. It's not that my hands were shaking (although I must say that is partly true LOL!) but because I did not dare bring my camera along. What if I dropped the camera into the sea? That would spoil my whole trip!
So I just took my iPhone along. And it's just an iPhone 3GS, so the photos were not especially good. And I had to hold the paddle at the same time while taking photos so it was pretty tough. I was really lucky that my iPhone did not slip from my hands and drop into the water!
I did not talk much with the fisherman behind me. He did not know much English and I did not know a single word of Vietnamese. So it was just sign language between us.
I was a little apprehensive going under the cave but when we passed through, it was like a different world on the other side. I had no pictures to show but it was so calm and beautiful on the other side. I looked up the mountain karst and saw birds flying in the mists. It was almost like a dream.
I think I spent about one hour or so kayaking. It was such an amazing experience. And quite scary too. There were times when I though the kayak would flip over, and there were times when we were so near the rocks I thought we would hit them.
So do I know how to kayak after this experience? No, I don't think so. But it was fun and I do not mind going kayaking again in future!
Soon, it was time to get back onto our boat. Where would be going next? Stay tuned to find out in Part 2.
To be continued ....