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If you are a follower of the blog you will know that recently I came back from a life altering trip to Ha Long Bay. For the first time in my life I spent three days sailing around the beautiful islets of Ha Long Bay, which has recently been included as one of the “Seven Natural Wonders Of The World”.
Earlier this year, I visited another Natural Wonder i.e. Jeju Island in South Korea. Even though it was breathtakingly beautiful, it cannot match the vast majestic awesomeness of Ha Long Bay. I felt the beauty of Ha Long Bay was of a completely different level, with clear blue sky and the sea dotted with the beautiful islets as far my eyes could see.
I set off on my maiden voyage around the bay with V Spirit Cruises and was greeted my their super friendly guide, Matt, a short 27 year old Vietnamese guy who looked a lot like Gus from “Recess” outside my hotel in Hanoi. After picking up a few more people from their hotels in the Old Quarter, we drove three and a half hours to the harbour in Halong City, stopping once in a souvenir shop/restaurant for half an hour.
At the port, we boarded a small boat which took us to the bigger boat on which we would be spending most of our time. In the small boat, I met Luna and Armin, two retired German friends who were on a trip across South East Asia, a Brit named Neil, who worked as a store manager in London, and a married couple Aryo and Ruby with their 6 year old son, Dominick. Aryo was from Jakarta and Ruby was from Kuala Lumpur and they lived in Brunei. Six of us and Dominick, and a handful of V Cruise crew members would be sailing across the “Bay of Descending Dragons” for the next 3 days.
A fun fact: There are officially 1969 islets in Ha Long Bay, a number that has no statistical relevance and is basically a number that has been announced by the Government to commemorate the year when Ho Chi Minh passed away.
I was given room number 206, which was a comfortable air conditioned room with a double bed, and an attached bathroom. The floors and the ceilings, like most of the boat, were made of wood. There was a speaker embedded on the ceiling, through which Matt announced that lunch was ready.
Lunch, like most meals on the boat as I found out later, was an elaborate affair. Sea food, chicken, pork, vegetables were served one by one as all of us gorged on them. They were surprisingly delicious but there was a catch. Every time you would try to eat the delicious food, you would be at a risk of missing out on the beautiful view of the islets and the sea that we were sailing through.
About an hour after lunch, while I was drifting in and out of sleep on one of the deck chairs, it is hard not to with a bellyful of delicious sea food and cool sea breezes caressing your body, we were asked to board the small boat again for a visit to the Sung Sot Cave.
We climbed around 50 steep steps, our panting constantly reminding us of how unfit we really were, to the entrance of the cave. There were three sections inside the cave, last one being the largest and the prettiest. Our guide, Matt, would point at various stalactites, every now and then, and declare what they resembled.
“That looks like a bear” He said once in his squeaky little irritating voice.
We checked the stalactite that he was pointing to from different angles. It did not look like a bear. At best, it looked like a broken beer bottle.
“You have to use your imagination” He would say when he saw the confused look on our faces.
Back on the big boat, Matt declared that next stop will be the Soi Sim Island. We were asked whether we wanted to go hiking or swimming. I decided to hang around in the Soi Sim manmade beach, and enjoy the sunset. The beach was quite small but it had a gorgeous view of the islets, beyond which the sun seemed to be setting, turning the sky bright orange. All the people from our boat decided to give hiking a miss and took a quick dip into the cool clear water. I found a quiet little rock, watched the sunset, and took pictures.
Ha Long bay is not as secluded as you would think. It wasn’t atleast on our first day. Whenever we stopped near a cave or a beach, we would see some local ladies in small rafts selling everything from Absolut Vodka to Pringles. They were even making and receiving calls on their cell phones.
I would be standing on the deck, mesmerised by the jaw dropping beauty all around, and then hear a nasal Vietnamese voice calling out to me from the sea.
“Hey mister, you want to buy something? Cheap, cheap.”
That night at dinner, the crew members cooked, in front of us, a prawn dish steamed in vodka. It was delicious, prawns usually are, but it did not get me drunk. (Damn!) Dominick looked awfully happy though.
After dinner, we tried our hand at squid fishing.
No one caught anything, except Neil who hooked in a box of cheese Pringles from one of the local rafts. The lady in the raft shrieked and cursed while we all laughed.
Matt, through the speakers in the room, announced that Taichi classes were underway on the sun deck. He said that it refreshes your mind and cleanses your soul. It was 6 am. I went back to sleep, cursing him.
At around 7.30 am, at the breakfast table, we were told that we would be spending the day at Lan Ha Bay and will have to transfer into a day boat in half an hour. Lan Ha Bay is in a more secluded part of Ha Long and not many cruises had the permission to sail there. Ours, thankfully, did.
The day boat, which was in truest sense a junk boat because it was old and the wooden floors squeaked, looked really pretty. It had six recliners on the deck and a comfortable dining area. The kitchen area was really small but the lunch that came out of it few hours later was just unbelievable. Fried fish, squid, crab cakes and chicken came out of the kitchen which was smaller than an Indigo Aircraft toilet.
We sailed for about 90 minutes, with no other cruises in sight. The sun was beating down but the view was so good that we braved the heat and stayed on deck. We talked, took pictures and drank beer.
Every time Armin, who was lying on a reclining chair in the front of the deck, saw a nice islet or a picturesque view, he would say, “Luna!” and Luna would come and take two pictures. One of the view, and one of Armin with the view in the background.
Luna who was just as old as Armin, which is to say pretty old, was quite funny and would break into some German song every time things got a bit quiet. (PS: I want to be like him when I’m old).
Matt called us all down when the boat stopped in the middle of two enormous islets, and asked us to put on the life jackets and hop into a kayak.
Kayaking is quite easy, atleast in still water, and I soon got the hang of it. We all paddled to the Light and Dark cave, which is said to be infested with bats but we didn’t see any. I saw a few small fishes though. We kayaked into enclosures between islets and entered quiet dark caves, the quietness disturbed only by the occasional shrieks like “No Dominick, you will fall down!” or “Luna, paddle!”.
It was all very beautiful.
After lunch, we visited a small beach in the middle of Lan Ha Bay where we spent our afternoon. Some chose to cannon ball from the top of the deck, and some chose to swim to the beach and relax. I decided to kayak and explore the waters a bit more.
The blue sky, clear water, giant islets, small fishes, and the distant chirps of birds, enchanted me so much that I went farther and farther away from our day boat. I had a brief “Cast Away” moment when for 20 minutes or so, I could not find my way back. Somehow I did manage to find it though, and as the evening started to set in, we sailed towards the Hay Long Bay Pearl Farm.
That evening, after the rather boring stopover at the Pearl Farm, we returned to the Soi Sim Beach for sunset. The weather was good and our main boat was parked near a gorgeous giant islet. Most of us decided to enjoy the sunset from the boat, lying on the deck chair and drinking the local brew, Bia Hanoi. (Bia Hanoi sucks, by the way)