Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Halong Bay

I should rename this blog “lazy viet”…. Anyway, this week-end I - finally - went for my first real touristic trip since I'm in Hanoi - I went to Halong bay. And I think I chose right for a first. Of course, it's famous, everyone has already seen a picture of it, but once there, as usual, all becomes different.
The place is wonderful, not only for it's scenery, but also for it's magic, a land of dragons and fabulous creatures, a journey in old Asia,
Nothing much to say about the travel to the seaside – we left Hanoi in the morning in one of those small tourist buses like you see everywhere, drove on the “highway” (there are 2 x 2 lanes, but packed with bikes, horses, trucks, usual stuff) passed HaiPhong and ended in some kind of harbour were all the other buses joined us – Halong bay is a major touristic attraction.
And there it began. The harbour was full of boats, all made of wood, with this particular junk look. They’re modernized and all have engines, but many of them still have sails which they set – I’m sure they don’t help much, but the look is great! There were boats everywhere, like you have motorbikes in Hanoi, and they were maneuvering all at the same time, while small paddy boats were sneaking around trying to sell some goods – exactly like in the old imagery.
Our boat was one of these big junks, 2 stories and a “terrace” on the top.
On board with us was our Vietnamese guide (Duc, not sure about the spelling), a crew of 4 including the captain, and the passengers.
I have to say some word about them, because I met some really nice people. We were 15 all together, and it was a lucky number. There was a group of 4, living in Montgomery, Alabama (yes, I remember) Jacob (Jack) was from a family originated from Poprad, Slovakia (any Slovakian reader?), while the others were from Vietnamese origin. Then there were 2 guys from Spain, one was brave enough to paddle with me during the kayak tour – I guess his butt still hurts, but blame the kayak, not me! Then a young couple, the lad from Scotland (sorry I said England…), a cool Scottish guy (they’re all cool in Scotland!), and his girldfiend (who thinks I have a French accent) from Sweden.

And then there were Mick and Kylie from Australia, and Nancy and Claudia from Germany. I mention them in a row because we spent most of our time together, and they all played a part in my trip being so good.
Kylie (notice she bears the same first name as who-you-know) is a very friendly, easy-to-speak with and smiling person, but I didn’t fully get what she’s doing for a living (apart from going to Mongolia and riding horses, which is why she doesn’t eat them) and Mick is a professional photographer with a huge Nikon camera. As a photographer, he covered the Sidney Olympics, shot adds for Tiger Beer in Singapore and Lindt in Sidney. I believe he took great pictures from the trip, and I hope I’ll have the occasion to see them. Anyway, that’s only a cover-up, because he’s doing much more than that, and you can check it here: http://www.gekkoimages.com/
He also enjoys sharing a beer with other passengers – it ended up being me, I wonder why...
Claudia and Nancy come from the Schwarzwald region in Germany, and they know about the Feldberg ski resort (but no, Denis, they don’t know Isabelle). I didn’t have much occasion the talk to Claudia, but I had good time with Nancy, she likes adventure, always ready for going off tracks. We chatted a lot about all her trips and crazy things she did (like getting lost in sort of Australian desert..)
We spent the first day cruising around in the bay, and visited one of the many many caves they have there. They all bear a name, I don’t remember which was ours. Anyway, I visited already many caves in Belgium and in Czech Rep, and all caves being “created” the same way, they all look pretty much the same: Stalagmites and stalagtites… But there were some nice ones, with weird shapes, like a Buddha, a monkey, a turtle, and a “surprise” – if I tell you it was made of a stalagmite, and that they have very big ones, you should get what it was.
After the caves we went to a “fish market”, which is actually an assembly of “floating houses”, that is, really floating houses – check the pictures, it gives a better idea. The fish market was just a few basins with a fish or 2 swimming around, I didn’t dare to buy one or I would have emptied their stock. From the fish market we started kayaking in the bay, the goal was paddling along the cliffs until we find a “tunnel” under one of them – a 45 minutes round trip according to the guide. Nice trip, enjoying the scenery while trying to avoid the big junks and still keeping afloat, a bit like riding around buses in Hanoi – I have some practice already, piece of cake. But people who did kayaking know it, it’s quickly boring and tiring. We paddled about 30 minutes with no tunnel in sight, until we spotted some hole in a cliff at least another paddling hour away… We’re used to consider Vietnamese indications as approximate – to say the best – but that was a bit too much. Most of us resigned, but you know Spanish people, they never give up… so we carried on, and finally found the right one – actually very near.
Back to the junk, we moved a bit to reach our “night spot” where we had dinner. The evening was cool, we were sipping beers on the deck, surrounded by the other junks. They had some karaoke in 2 junks next to us, so we could hear the talented voices of the drunk Englishmen singing Robbie Williams on the left junk, and the mixed choir of Chinese (drunk) singing whatever-it-could-have-been on the right. Being right in the middle, we all promised to ourselves never to participate in open air Karaoke ever.
We had a nice chat, cuddling the friendly boat kitty (meant to chase the rats, but they were probably twice bigger than him), staring at the stars. Nancy suggested we should go swimming the day after, as I already had a few beers I couldn’t say else than “count me in! Actually, we should go now!” - but we agreed for the morning after.
Rest of the night was quiet, I slept wonderfully (alone) – I always sleep well on boats, in a way you can see them as waterbeds.
We got up (Actually, I was first on the deck) to enjoy the sunrise. And get ready for the swim. Mick said he would go too, so the 3 of us dressed swimsuits, and jumped from the boat deck, in the fresh and polluted waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. We spent the rest of the day cruising again in the bay, the weather was great, and it was a wonderful moment. As was the whole trip, a good corner stone in my Vietnamese time…

Pictures are here and here