OK well there's rain in Melbourne so the Australian Open final has been briefly delayed, allowing me to come back down and get fully updated on my blog! We departed Hanoi on Friday morning on our 3.5 hour prviate bus journey east to Vietnam's natural treasure, Halong Bay. This was the place I was most excited about visiting in the whole country, so I was a tad disappointed to wake up in the morning to find another grey and overcast day. The drive there was not especially scenic as we passed endless multi-national electronics and clothing factories, but after a few hours the first limestone karsts that make this region so famous became visible.
The boat dock at Halong was teaming with tourists, and there were so many boats waiting to pick up passengers not all could fit on the dock at once. They were basically all ramming each other and jostling for position. We boarded our private boat and were immediately fed a very nice lunch as we cruised across the open water to get closer to the first of the bay's 1900 odd karst islands. Our tour guide said we were lucky with the weather, as even though it was overcast we had good visibility. He said that at this time of year Halong Bay is often shrouded in mist. North Vietnam do actually get a winter and most days around this time of year tend to be damp, cool and misty. He advised that we come back in September or October if we want to see Halong Bay in sun, and also suggested that if we do come back we visit the mountain city of Sapa in the north - somewhere again permenantly mist shrouded and cold this time of year.
On arrival at the first island we disembarked the boat and were given some free time to explore two huge caves in the rocks. The first had spectacular stalagtite formations which were illuminated by multi-colour lights - something which actually added something to the beauty of the place. The second cave was less illuminated but still incredibly large and stunning. I had not read anything about the caves before we came and I was really impressed by them.
Having visited the caves we got back on the boat for our Halong Bay cruise, which took us one hour through the bay's many sharp rocky islands and past a couple of floating villages. I am not sure but I believe the first village we passed, which was also the most picturesque, was where Top Gear ended their Vietnam trip. With massive tree covered cliffs as a backdrop, it really was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Although the islands all looked the same I could have happily spent days cruising them. We only saw a fraction of the bay's total area and I really do wish we could have spent longer there. I don't think I would ever have got bored. Everyone was mesmorised and constantly taking pictures as we cruised through. Sadly most of mine make the place look very dour because of the weather, and they in no way do justice to Halong Bay's beauty and grandeur. I would have loved to have seen the place illuminated in bright sunshine as it would have looked even better.
Our destination on the cruise was a small port on Cat Ba Island, which is outside the UNESCO protected area and so has became a key resort centre in the region. The island was quite large and it took us one hour by bus to drive from one side to the other through what was completely unspoilt rural scenery. The development has centred on the island's main town on the south side, which is also the area's main ferry port. Like other resorts we have visited in Asia it was gradually becoming overdeveloped, but it was still a lot nicer than Nha Trang and especially Sihanoukville. We watched a spectacular sunset (the sun just came out in time) over a floating village in the harbour and then enjoyed playing pool at the local bar in the evening. The whole town had quite a nice vibe and there weren't that many tourists about, which made a change.
In the morning we awoke to find the weather had worsened still, and it was raining steadily. In spite of this 7 of us decided to take the opportunity to go kayaking to fill in our morning. As we lined up for the kayaks the guide, who I'd had a brief chat with before, decided that I would be his companion in the two seater ocean kayaks as I "looked strong". He really ought to have picked one of the girls as a companion as we were by far the faster pairing, and some of the others were exhausted by the end! Having done it in New Zealand I'm actually not too bad at kayaking anymore - the last time I did it in Scotland I capsized, although that wasn't an ocean kayak! We first cruised through a fishing village, where one pair managed to go off course and break someone's fishing net, much to the house owner's anger. We then cruised through a small cave and across a large stretch of open water to reach "Monkey Island". As we pulled up on the beach there, hordes of small monkeys raced out of the jungle to meet us. They know that the tourists bring bananas and sure enough we had. The creatures were actually quite aggressive and we had to keep a 5m distance. I have a feeling that if we didn't have any bananas they may actually have attacked us! I was annoyed I didn't have my camera (we couldn't take them in the kayaks) as I would have got some great pictures. The guide then took us up a muddy path to viewpoint, which seemed rather pointless given the weather, before we headed back to port at the end of the morning.
We left Cat Ba in the early afternoon on the public hydrofoil to Haiphong City. We did not pass through Halong Bay again sadly, as the boat shot across the open water to reach one of Vietnam's major ports. Fortunately docking at Haiphong City and not Halong took over an hour off our bus journey back to Hanoi. The traffic congestion was bad as ever though, and we passed a serious road accident - its surprising I haven't seen more given how people drive here! The entire stretch of road, which was over 100km, was through urban area, which is typical of nearly all roads we've been on in Vietnam. Development seems to centre on any major highway and its a sign of how densely populated this country is. 86 million people live here in a country around the size of Poland.
One last stop in Vietnam and that is the city of Vinh. It is merely a functional stop to break up our journey to Laos, which in total would take 19 hours. We have a 7 hour bus ride to Ving tomorrow, followed by a 12 hour trip to Vientiane the following day. I'll next update from Laos, by which time I'll finally be able to access Facebook again!