Halong Bay is one of Vietnams areas of true natural beauty according to every single guidebook you can read on the subject. It is a UNESCO world heritage site and as our guide kept insisting, it is on the shortlist to be a modern wonder of the world and he repeatedly urged us to go online and vote for it. I doubt either of us will be doing that but it was still good.
We only did a day trip out there, you can do longer and stay overnight on a boat but we felt that it wasn't really necessary and to be honest the weather forecast looked rubbish. On the day the forecast was unfortunately proven correct as we were picked up early in the morning from Hanoi with the city shrouded in cloud and drizzle. Halong Bay is about three hours drive out of the city and a bumpy drive it is too and the mood wasn't particularly high as a minibus full of people peered out praying for the weather to break. It did by the way, to an extent in that it stopped raining.
At $25 each you can't probably expect much organisation but it was all a bit shambolic when we got to the BAy as we were left standing around not knowing what boat to go on for ages. Our guide looked a bit like Penfold from Dangermouse, small in stature, with a suit and thick glasses and a "Vietnam" cap to show he was one of us. He also seemed under the impression that he spoke fluent English when in reality only one word in ten was comprehensible. But what he lacked in language skills he made up for in enthusiasm and would often corner us with a five minute monolgue on something that caught his eye and he'd always finish with a beaming smile of expectation as he waited for our congratulations on his pearls of wisdom. Bless him.
So getting on the boat is chaotic, there are far too many boats ploughing this particular furrow and the trip looked to be heading for disaster, however miraculaously we made it out onto the water and suddenly it was well worth it. The area is rightly famed for it's beauty and although sunshine would have helped no end, as we left the big boat and phutted around lagoons on dinghies you could see what the fuss was all about. It reminded us a lot of Milford Sound in New Zealand with clear, still waters surrounded by rising islands and cliff faces.
Lunch came with the trip and we stopped at a floating fish market where it was possible to buy some fish and have them cook it for you along with the rest of the provided meal. Neither of us did but some took the plunge and the happy locals plucked the massive fishes out of the pools and beat them to death with a club. Nice. The people who work on the markets seem to all live out on the water and we got a look inside their houses which are little more than shacks, although they are nevertheless hooked up to the wonderful world of television!
The hilight of the trip was a massive cave, described by our guide as a catherdral (we think) and it truly was spectacular. As big as St Pauls cathedral (maybe) it is a totally natural wonder that was only discovered about ten years ago acidentally when someone fell into it. Only some of our pictures came out and they probably won't do it justice so you may want to look it up. Our guide was in full flow by now with a laser pen pointing out bits of cave that looked like other things, most went over our heads as he chatted nonsensically until he grabbed our arms and pulled us towards his favourite bit of the caves:
"look" he said pointing at a phallic shaped object 20 metres away.
"can you tell what it is?" he asked. We nodded, wondering if he actually wanted us to say it out loud. Maybe we should have done as he obviously wasn't convinced.
"It is a man's reproductive organ" he announced proudly in his clearest English to date. And that was that.
Maybe you had to be there but we laughed.
That was the end of the trip really. Another bumpy and long ride back during which an American guy annoyed us massively by talking non stop for three hours giving his views on anything and everything to the whole minibus. Saving her nation from being totally annoying was Stephanie who we went out for a meal with that night before braving the nighttime shops looking for knock off dvds. Happy days.