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Sink or sail? Halong Bay - Vietnam

Halong Bay, April 1st - 3rd April, 2009

overcast 25 °C
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After many visits to the travel agents and reading too many horror stories online about Halong Bay tours gone wrong (esp. the post about the tourist whose boat sunk in the bay and they had to swim back to shore), we commit ourselves to a two night, three day trip with VEGA Travel. Fingers crossed this will be a memorable experience for all the right reasons! A three hour journey from Hanoi, and we arrive at the docks, swarming with tour groups.

Our "junk" is a lovely wooden three level boat (quite alike all the other boats) with sun loungers on the top level (pity it's cold, overcast and drizzly).

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We cruise through the bay, through the forest of magical and mysterious limestone mountains emerging from a sea of 3000+ islands, take in the scenery while getting acquainted with our crew and enjoy an impressive seafood banquet for lunch.

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Shortly after this we dock up to visit "surprising cave" (Hang Sung Sot) - an elaborate and gigantic cave system with a disco vibe thanks to the imaginatively illuminated chambers showcasing some interesting "natural" rock formations, stalactites and stalagmites.

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We leave just as hordes of boats arrive.

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To obtain a panoramic view over the islands we climb the 734 steps up to the summit of Titop Island, the only island in Halong bay that has white sand beaches (brought over from the mainland though).

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We anchor at Bai Tu Long Bay where we'll stay overnight. Next up - sea kayaking through caves, lagoons and around the karsts. Our cruisy guide decides to head back to the junk and leave us to it. A chilly paddle, rewarded by hot showers in our en-suite.

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Another great feast materializes of seafood, meat, veg, fruit, wine... Great chats with our new mates while Dang our guide passes around the notorious rice wine and shares valuable info with us - why do Vietnamese eat chicken feet? "cos it's a fun snack, nice and crunchy". Right. We get rocked to sleep and are fortunate to be on a rat free junk (luck's on our side). Our bedroom is on the lower deck, complete with stunning morning karst and sea views from our bed.

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Unfortunately the rest of our crew is heading back today so we jump aboard another boat with Dang and head to Cat Ba island for some hiking in the national park. The three of us trek through lush forest while a 70yr old local keeps up with us (despite being laden up with fishing gear and wearing gumboots). We hear a strange noise - is it the endemic yellow headed langur only found on Cat Ba? No, wild dogs advises Dang. We expected an easy walk in the park but the track is pretty rugged with branches for steps, vines for hand holds, and many slippery rock slides. We stop at the old mans hut for a green tea - he is allowed to live in the park because he's been here so long. We then carry on, eventually meeting up with the road - surprisingly void of activity. Amazing for Vietnam!

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Back aboard our boat and among the karsts for yet another feast. We dock up at a floating house with six guard dogs aboard - there goes our excuse of not having room for a dog back in Auckland! We sea kayak from here past some floating fishing villages - all nicely painted green shacks with red roofs and guard dogs to watch over the fish and shellfish suspended in underwater cages.

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Back at the floating house, Alana is fascinated by the cuttlefish (squid family) in pens. Even more so when Dang prods them with a broom handle and they instantaneously change colour - these guys have many costumes; red, white, mottled, iridescent blue flashing along their edges as a signal for danger (like space invaders), followed by ink explosions. When Dang puts live fish into the mix the cuttlefish switch into predator mode and home in for the kill in packs. The poor fish have no chance.

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Alana has to be pried away from the action so we can head to Cat Ba Island where we are to farewell Dang and settle into a 3-star hotel "Holiday View" for a night of luxury. Once there, we venture out for dinner and a brief stroll along the waterfront, then hibernate with movies, oreo's and coffee in our swanky room.

Big buffet brekky to start the day, then meet up with Dang, take another junk through the bays and back to the mainland for yet another huge feed. We then head back to Hanoi, via the obligatory rest stop at a souvenir gallery selling everything you could desire at not so desirable prices. Nice try though. One of the tourists inquires over the high death toll on these roads "it's ok, Vietnamese make many babies", advises the guide.

All in all, a fantastic trip - made so by Dang, our crew, and the natural beauty of Halong Bay.

Posted by beefnlamb 05:27 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking

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