Halong Bay Experience: Inspiring and mystical
We have breakfast and checked out from the Sofitel Metropole Hanoi and met with our guide and heading to the bus for a four-hour transfer for an overnight cruise in Halong Bay, directly east of Hanoi. Our drive takes us through urban, suburban and rural areas, through nice neighborhoods and some pitifully poor ones. The farther we venture from the city, the rougher the road becomes.
Our guide Minh fills us in on the history of Vietnam, its economic and political climate. Along the way, we stop at a roadside shop which is HUGE and sells many, many products, some of which are very high quality. Rose tells us we will return here tomorrow for lunch and a chance to shop so we begin to scope out our potential purchases. Back on the bus, our scenery becomes more and more rural. Men and women in rice paddies, wearing conical hats. Water buffalo standing in wet fields. Ancient temples and graves speckled the countryside. As we approach Halong Bay, the steep karst formations appear on the horizon. They are limestone outcroppings. They are silhouetted in a mist – the coast is not clear. I have seen many beautiful photos of Halong Bay – mine are not going to be the sunny kind.
Halong Bay, in the Gulf of Tonkin, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Legend has it that dragons were sent to this “Bay of the Descending Dragons” to help defend the land against ancient invaders; they spat out jewels and jade that became the many emerald-green islands and islets that dot the bay. making spring rolls and carving tomatoes to look like flowers. I sneak in a foot reflexology massage in the spa, which it turns out is a two-deck chair space on the deck. I wear all my layers (camisole, long-sleeve tee, fleece jacket and raincoat). All I need was a babushka to complete the look. My feet, of course, are naked.
We board the pre-booked luxury Halong bay tour , a wooden junk combining traditional oriental design and modern amenities, for an overnight cruise among the thousands of limestone islands. Wow, so happy the group is…
Lunch is first … a buffet of tasty seafood and other items.
We then head to our cabins … we are lucky enough to have a corner unit so we have big Asian windows on two of our four walls and a deck off the back with a deck chair! Our view of the limestone spires is spectacular.
We anchor in the middle of the bay and tender transports us to row a boat, “manned” by young girls in traditional straw hats. They take us on a one-hour tour of the bay, moving through Vung Vieng fishing village where 300+ people live in houses that sit on the water. Near the end, we travel through a naturally formed grotto with spires on the other side
Speaking of our Vietnam tour package , I always like to count the number of modes of transportation that are involved in a single tour. So far, five:
1. Traditional motorcoach
2. Buggy through Colonial Hanoi
3. Wooden junk in Ha Long Bay
4. Cruise ship tender in Halong Bay
5. Wooden row boat through Halong Bay
We share dinner with Frank and Peggy , also of St. Louis. Five-course gourmet meal, heavy emphasis on seafood (we’re in a fishing village of course). One of the appetizers is a carved out pineapple with diamond-shaped windows showing a candle inside. Fried spring rolls and fresh pawns are skewered to create an exotic tropical showpiece. Following dinner, the cruise line offers squid fishing and a viewing of the movie, “Indochine,” starring Catherine Deneuve. But jet lag and a day in the fresh air has nabbed the last bit of energy from everyone, so Deneuve was talking to herself as Patrick and I left the dining deck.