We were collected from our hotel in Hanoi and taken 3 hours east to our boat moored in Halong Bay.
En route we were asked of we had any special dietary requirements, a couple said they didn't eat seafood, Jan said she didn't eat meat, to which she was asked "but you eat chicken, right?" Uh-oh.
The bay is host to over two thousand limestone islands, a handful of which are inhabited by humans. We jump on a small launch and wave goodbye to the mainland for a couple of days.
We reached our converted junk, it had been restored immaculately and our cabin, though small was opulent and so much nicer than many of the hotel rooms we have stayed in. After a quick safety briefing, we were given lunch. I had stir fried pork and Jan had "not pork". Once finished, we set sail to explore some of the karst islands. The sea was as flat as glass, the higher treelined peaks of the surrounding islands were shrouded in grey cloud giving them a distinctly prehistoric look.
As we rounded the coastline of one of the larger islands, it opened out into a sweeping bay, palm-fronded and with a beach of yellowy-orange sand. The island soared up at its centre and at the very top was a lookout that resembled a circular bandstand. We only had 40 minutes here and so we had to decide whether to walk up 10 minutes to the viewpoint or just chill on the beach and maybe go for a dip in the sea. We're viewpoint-people, everyone knows that! The walk up was on proper stone steps with rope handrails all the way to the very last stair. The view across the bay was breathtaking, there were karst islands in every direction and beyond them, lined up yet more jagged islands and islets and this pattern went on and on until the land masses disappeared into the mist.
After the walk down, we needed a dunk in the sea to cool off. We got as deep as our ankles in the chilly water before giving up, it was fer-reezing!
For all the bay's beauty, you weren't going to get us in that water.
From the viewpoint we took a short hop by boat to the Sun Sot caves. The huge cave system was ambiently lit and our guide did his best to convince us that most of the rock formations looked like one animal or another (though there were lots that apparently look like turtles), nonetheless, the stalagmites and stalactites were impressive and the unusual way in which the caverns were formed gave the roof of the cave the look of an upside down rough sea. From the cave, we headed across to a floating village, this one was really just a floating shop but from there we were able to do some kayaking. We cautiously slid into the kayak and we less-than-gracefully paddled off. The feeling of gliding so low in the water toward the jagged fang-like overhangs was incredible, as we looked up at the huge stone spikes, visions of Indiana Jones style booby traps sprang to mind and we paddled a little way away again. Paddling around the looming cliff faces, we were immersed in tranquility, the sounds of the sea, the stillness of the air and the beauty of our surroundings. The clouds thinned a little as the sun began to set and we just sat, paddles set down and watched the stuff our dreams are made of.
The evening meal back on the boat was pretty good, we shared a table with a great couple from Israel and retired to the top of the boat for a few too many drinks. The stars were out, the air was warm, the sea was still. Can it get any better than this?
The second day was a bit of a muddle, the guide gave us, as a group too many I'll-informed options as to our itinerary, then sulkily sat at the back of the boat when he'd had enough of the guests' questions. We ended up just slowly cruising through the islands back to the mainland. We had 4 hours of open-mouthed wonderment as our boat quietly slipped between the dot to dot islands and it didn't matter one bit that it was chucking it down with rain. What an amazing whistle stop tour.
We got back to Hanoi quite late, we had just enough time for bowl of noodle soup for Jan and a huge plate of crispy chicken and rice for me. The only odd thing about the meal was the never ending stream of people the came out of the restaurant to look and more often than not, have a laugh at us. We smiled back and tried to carry on our conversation but occasionally someone would bark "hello, where are you from"? And the staff gathered round us each time to listen and laugh as we spoke. Bizarre.
We had an early flight to Hué in the morning, it was cheaper to fly than go by train, again, bizarre.