The extreme heat of Saigon had started to cool off a bit by the time we reached Dalat and Hoi An. Now that we were in northern Vietnam it was actually cold. A thick fog covered the horizon upon our arrival at Halong Bay. This was not a good thing. We were here for the famous views of limestone islands jutting out of the bright blue water. If we wanted fog Julia, Jonathan, Nathan and I could have stayed in SF where it is plentiful. But we had no choice but to go with the flow as our tour guide ushered us to the port.
Choosing a tour operator was tricky since each one seems to have just as many bad reviews as they do good ones. We finally opted for Ethnic Travels and hoped for the best. I breathed a sigh of relief when our little white boat pulled up to the port. It had a spacious deck above and a cosy dining space below. Our rooms were clean and comfortable and even had private bathrooms! It was better than plenty of hotels we’ve stayed in.
As we embarked on our journey the islands were still shrouded in a thick mist. But towards the end of the day the sun began to break out, illuminating the beautiful islands that surrounded us.
After cruising a couple hours we made a stop for a floating village. I expected this to be a sort of tourist trap in which you float around a bit then spend most of the visit at a shop. But I was surprised instead by an actual, functioning floating village. It was kind of like a squatter settlement where people do not have to pay any rents. They just build their little abode and anchor down. Simple bridges connected the structures, which are more like floating houses than boats. I liked that the convenience store was a boat filled to the brim, carrying toiletries and snacks, was making its rounds as we rowed by.
By sunset, we pulled into a protected cove. I had expected many other boats to surround us since Halong Bay has a reputation for being crowded. But we were the only ones. I saw a few boat clusters in the distance but I think our captain was taking us off the beaten track a bit, which I appreciated. Fewer boats also meant it was easier for Nathan, Jonathan and some of the other hearty souls on the boat to jump off the deck into the water 15 feet below.
The food was surprisingly good. There was generally a fried fish, meat dish, and a couple veggie stir fries at every meal. Dessert consisted of cut bananas, pomelo, pineapple and/or watermelon.
In the morning we had the opportunity to kayak around the cove and explore two caves. Both caves were large and actually went all the way through the island. In one, they had built a type of banquet hall with chairs and tables ready to be set out. It would be so awesome to have a party there!
Before we knew it our time in Halong was up and we were headed to our next destination, Bai Tu Long Bay. This is a much less visited area and the simple harbor was much smaller than that of Halong. This time we boarded a smaller boat because we were on our way to a small island to stay the night. This boat crew was not exactly as experienced as the first one. For one, they all looked to be under 25. And as we pulled up to the island they managed to get stuck on a mud bank. After waiting for the water level to rise a bit we did make it to the harbor, but promptly crashed into a sitting boat. From there, we walked a series of narrow planks hopping between boats to make it to the dock. Did I mention that it was dark and we all had our backpacks on? I would not say it was particularly safe but all of us did make it. We piled into tuk tuks for the bumpy ride to our lodgings. That night the group toasted our successful and safe arrival with beers and rice liquor.
By morning only Nathan rose early enough to catch the morning market. He reported that people sold very small quantities compared to the markets we’ve been to in towns and cities. For example, a woman might only be selling a bowl full of clams or bag full of shucked oysters or bunches of lettuce greens. He indulged in s couple corn filled dough nuts and brought me back a peanut bun. What a sweetie.
Instead of taking a tuk tuk back to the harbor we took a leisurely bike ride. We stopped for a walk on a deserted feeling beach. Now I was really wishing for the heat of Saigon. As we walked along the shore we found a funky looking horseshoe crab and a series of beautiful shells.
For only lasting three days we fit a lot into our tour. Thankfully, the sun came out for us at just the right times. The limestone islands were as enchanting as I’d hoped. And as always, it was great to share the experience with friends.