Halong Bay, July 11
We arrived in Hanoi late in the evening and headed straight into the city to meet up with Jackie and her friend. The plan was to head straight to Halong Bay for a few days so we decided to book a tour directly in Halong Bay instead of Hanoi. We did this because we typically get a better deal and, more importantly, we could actually see firsthand what the boat looks like (funny how the brochures rarely look like the actual boats?!).
We arranged a private driver to take the four of us to Halong City and drop us at a hotel that we had already selected. We arranged the private taxi through our hotel in Hanoi and, upon arrival in Halong City, it became clear that our taxi driver had another agenda. After get ting lost a couple times, and all of us persistently showing him the map and address, Jackie luckily saw the sign of the hotel down a street that we were passing. However, once we got out of the taxi a man was outside waiting for us, trying to persuade us to stay at his hotel. We were not keen on this and were turned off by the fact that the hotel owner in Hanoi was playing games.
The street was loaded with hotels so we proceeded to check the prices of rooms. It seemed as though all of the locals were in on it because we continually received the same answer "sorry, no rooms". We're still confused by the whole experience, especially when a kid kept handing Cameron his cell phone to talk to the owner of the hotel in Hanoi. After the third call we started to get a little agitated. It took us a while to finally find a hotel and everything worked out just fine, but you have to admire their persistence!
Our first order of business was to go to the main dock and check out the boats for our tour the next morning. As we suspected, when we arrived at the dock there were several tour companies to choose from. After a few minutes we found a company that was willing to actually take us out and board the boat to see it firsthand. The boat looked fantastic so we struck a deal with Son (or "Alex" if you're a tourist); a three day tour spending our first night on a three star boat (called a Junk) and the second night in a two star hotel on the island of Cat Ba, before transferring back to Hanoi.
The next morning we set sail to Halong Bay! Our room on the Junk was very luxurious with a private deck on the back. The food was also fantastic; Jackie compared it to a Chinese wedding because the rounds of food just kept coming! It only took a few hours to arrive at the infamous Halong Bay. Huge limestone fiords surrounded us in every direction, we quickly understood why the area was designated by UNESCO as the World Natural Heritage Site. There are 1,969 islands in the region, many of them hollow with spectacular caves. We went exploring through a massive limestone cave that was very cool inside, a refreshing change from the blistering heat and humidity outside.
After exploring the caves we climbed into kayaks and spent an hour paddling around a few large fiords. It was nice to get into the kayaks and see the bay from a different perspective. As beautiful as the fiords were, we were a little disappointed in the water quality. We all seemed to be expecting crystal clear water; instead it was green and murky, with visible traces of engine fuel floating on the top. Tourism is taking its toll on the natural wonder.
Nevertheless, it was extremely hot and we were determined to go for a swim! Our guide sat on the second story of the boat, keeping a lookout as we swam. Now what would he be looking for you might ask? Big jellyfish! They were everywhere and were not the friendly type. Let's just say that if they got you with a stinger it would not be a pleasant feeling. But that didn't stop us from taking the plunge off the second and top level of the junk!
Our evening on the boat was sensational. The sunset was spectacular with the large fiords in the backdrop. In the distance we could see a huge lightning storm that lit up the sky every few seconds. It was at this point that our guide came up to the sundeck to deliver some serious information. He had that firm tone that made you pay close attention. A typhoon was fast approaching and they expected it to hit Halong Bay sometime in the late morning. They wanted us out of Halong Bay for safety precautions, so we were to be transported back to Hanoi where the storm wouldn't hit as hard as the coast. We went to bed happy to have had an amazing day, but sad that our trip to Cat Ba was to be cut short.
We were told breakfast would be at 8am but awoke to the engines roaring at 6am, the typhoon was approaching faster than expected! You would never know looking out the window; the weather looked like a typical morning, calm and peaceful. As we boarded a small bus heading to Hanoi we passed several military vehicles heading in the opposite direction towards Halong City. It seemed as though the situation was quite serious and all foreigners were being evacuated as quickly as possible.
When we arrived in Hanoi the weather was still beautiful, we joked that a storm had better be on its way after all that comotion! Fortunately the tour company put us into a posh three star hotel because we weren't able to see Cat Ba Island. This was just fine with us, it's not every day we get to stay in a hotel that nice and it was going to be crappy weather regardless. Sure enough, at three o'clock the weather started to change and we could hear the thunder in the distance. We were actually excited to see what it would be like to witness a typhoon firsthand!