TRIP FROM HANOI TO HALONG BAY, VIETNAM
Back in Hanoi, exhausted after bus-ing independently around Vietnam’s rugged northeast mountain region, I excitedly prepared for my boat tour of famous Halong Bay, which is scattered with thousands of limestone karst peaks and islands. It’s the one place in Vietnam I’d been waiting to experience for several years. By recommendation of the guidebooks, but quite out of character for me, I’d booked a tour out of Hanoi. Apparently travelers just can’t do the trip any cheaper independently. Besides, after all my long, pesky local bus rides in Vietnam’s mountains I was certainly ready to enjoy an easier trip for a change.
|terraced rice fields in Northern Vietnam|
For my Halong Bay Adventure I’d paid all of $20 for a 3-day, 2-night trip. That included a 3-hour bus to Halong City, a buffet lunch, a 5-hour cruise of the bay, visits to 2 caves, 2 nights hotel accommodation on Catba Island, meals for 2 days, a brief hike in Catba Island National Park and the return to Hanoi via bay cruise and bus. What a bargain. Even I could afford that deal. But I’d never done a guided tour before. I just hoped it wouldn’t turn into another trying ordeal like I’d just endured for 10 days tromping around Vietnam’s remote northern mountain towns.
So after 2 days of hectic Christmas shopping in Hanoi, and after nervously handing over my passport to the hotel manager, who promised to secure me a visa extension (a bit scary giving up my passport), I was ushered to my tour van and off we drove to Halong City. I certainly needed a rest by then.
The van ride itself was fine, but I repeatedly felt like a stupid sheep being herded around with a pack of tourists and felt frustrated at having to wait again and again for this person or that. Wow, a guided tour is entirely different from solo travels, I’ll say that! I also did not enjoy being forced to stop at big overpriced souvenir outlets to idly gaze around at masses of tacky merchandise. The fancy buffet lunch was not too good either. In fact, the super cheap street foods I usually eat at markets are much better. To put a positive spin on the tour, though, I did not have to think or search out bus stations or food. Everything was taken care of. Aside from ‘lessons in patience’ it was easy.
Finally we arrived at the edge of Halong Bay and boarded our grand traditional style boat. Off we sailed… Halong Bay was spectacular! Limestone peaks, covered in dense vegetation, are so densely packed that they overlap, forming a ‘mountain forest’ on the sea. Krabi, where I generally stay in Thailand, is quite similar. In Thailand, however, peaks are taller and more spread out, creating quite a different atmosphere.
|traditional boats in Halong Bay|
Halong Bay looked and felt a lot more exotic. The bay is filled with the perpetual haze of north Vietnam, creating a misty fuzzy effect. Our cruise was exceptionally beautiful and relaxing. The one cave we visited (not two) was spectacular as well, chock full of amazingly formed stalactites and stalagmites. I’ve seen loads of caves in various countries, and I must say that was one of the most impressive.
|gorgeous Catba Island Bay, full of Vietnamese boats|
Finally, at dusk, we arrived at Catba Island and were herded to our hotel. The town consisted of a long strip of tall, narrow sparkling new hotels rimming a large round harbor. Although the buildings created an unfortunately ugly touristy eyesore, Catba harbor itself is quite spectacular. It’s full of all sorts of old wood fishing boats and cute little ‘basket’ boats used as taxis to/from the bigger boats. At night the bay is all a-twinkle with lights. My 5th floor room had a balcony overlooking the romantic boat-filled harbor. The first night I shared the room with a girl from Malta, but the next day she left, so I had my very own room.
|‘basket’ boats in Catba Bay|
The first morning I awoke to a beautiful harbor view, went down for (a meager) breakfast, then was herded off for our 3-hour trek… Unfortunately, that proved to be a mere 2 km (1.2mile) snail walk through forest up to a small mountain peak. Views were fantastic but the ‘trek’ was more like an easy stroll, for me at least. The other tourists seemed to find it more like a strenuous expedition. Ahh, yes, the general unfit public. Not accustomed to that, I’m afraid. Ahhh, well, I was given another opportunity to ‘practice patience’.
|mountains of Catba Island National Park|
Back at Catba Bay and after lunch, I got my own chance to exercise. I promptly marched around the harbor, up over the headland and down to Catba’s two nearby beaches. The entire shoreline consists of big rocky headlands of near vertical rock. To my amazement, someone had built a boardwalk along the rock walls, suspended in air above the sea. It followed the curving headland way out around two peninsulas to access the beaches. The entire boardwalk was just strapped on the rock face, but it seemed surprisingly secure. Cool walk.
|boardwalk around Catba Island|
To my great delight, I discovered places to stay at the furthest, quietest beach. Next day I promptly moved out there and lived for three days before returning to Hanoi. Luckily, my return trip was open-ended and was included in the tour. My beach filled a small curving bay surrounded by rocky headlands, with views out to more limestone peaks. There wasn’t much to do but suntan, relax on the sand, swim, chat with the few other travelers, read, nap and eat. I could literally feel myself unwind from my hectic shopping spree in Hanoi and my trying mountain venture. I also felt unbounded joy at finally getting back to my usual life of beach, sand and sea. At night, the sounds of the ocean overwhelmed all else and I fell asleep to the wonderful sound of waves on beach.
|isolated beach at Catba Island|
After 3 days of unwinding, I somehow felt it was time to return to Hanoi. I had to pick up my passport with visa extension (hopefully) and prepare to leave northern Vietnam. I had decided I’d take the overnight train to Hue, Vietnam’s old capital city, in central coastal Vietnam. I would spend my final day in Hanoi with those preparations and enjoying a tasty iced Vietnamese coffee overlooking Hanoi’s lovely Hoan Kiem Lake. Refreshed, I’d be off to new places in Vietnam.
reporting from the road, Lash
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Have you been through Halong Bay? What was your trip like?
If not, what great bay cruise have you done?