The trouble with the internet is, I knew exactly how Ha Long Bay would look like. I was already mesmerised by all the images I saw of it on the web, and have been yearning to go — although it was really Top Gear’s Vietnam motorbike special that put Vietnam at the top of my travel wish list.
Back in Hanoi, we signed a tour with Dugong Sails, one of the many three-star boats that looked alike in the brochures available at Sinh Cafe. The 2D1N cruise cost us USD65 each, and it included meals, kayaking, and cave visits (and swimming too, but it was unfortunate that the local jellyfish decided to visit Ha Long Bay at the same time as us).
Our Ha Long Bay experience started out pretty shit. It took a painful 4-hour bus ride (we were promised that it would be 3 hours) from Hanoi’s city centre to the harbour. We were baffled by how slow the driver was going at, and when we asked him why he couldn’t speed up, he just said that there are traffic police around. This was a fine example of the shifty, undecipherable Viets I mentioned earlier. Motorbikes and trucks were zooming past us on the roads, and there we were, forced to watch the outside world crawl by while we impatiently anticipated the grandeur of Ha Long Bay. Plus, there was another not-so-short wait at the pier after we got off the bus, ugh.
There are over 2,000 of these little islands spread out over the waters, but it’s officially recorded as 1,961 as a way to honour the year that the Viets lost their revolutionary leader, Ho Chi Minh.
After a tasty lunch consisting of generous portions of fish, stir-fry veggies, tofu, Thai-like pancakes, and rice, we hopped off the boat and onto a floating fishing village to get into our kayaks to explore the area.
Island hopping stop number 2 is Titop Island, where we had the option of swimming at a Sentosa-like beach, or scale over 400 steps to get a 360-degree view of Ha Long Bay. We decided to put our calves and butts to the test.
Dinner was as yummy as lunch, and we ascended to the open deck to lie on our backs and enjoy the stars after wiping out our food in minutes. I wished that the boat continued cruising through the night though, because one of the best things about cruises is going out to the deck at night, and letting the wind tangle up your hair while hearing the waves crash against the sides of the ship. It was disappointing that all the tourist boats at Ha Long Bay whiled away the night anchored to a spot.
There were not many stars that night, but we managed to spot 2 shooting stars. It was really nice and peaceful, and we chatted all the way to bed time. Sleep was great for about two hours, before the blood-sucking sinister little bed buggers launched their attack on me. I thought it was my hives acting up at first, until I felt a bite and saw a black, tick-like bug crawling away. I squished it and stained the sheets with my blood. I managed to fall back to sleep, but woke at the break of dawn because of the itch. I drew back the curtains, and the second that light came through, the little bastards disappeared. Sneaky little assholes. I lost my bed bug virginity on this one bed (all my friends weren’t as lucky), and ended up with countless bites all over my body which itched intermittently over the next two days. I was just damn unlucky. Please don’t let it change your impression of Ha Long Bay cruises because this is an isolated incident. But bring a spray if you’d rather have a peace of mind.
Day 2 at Ha Long Bay started with a simple breakfast, and we got duped into paying an extra USD5 each to do an optional boat ride to see a “cave”. It was the shortest, most un-scenic tourist boat ride of my life.
After that silly boat ride we were comforted by a good lunch spread. I have to commend Dugong Sails for having consistently good food. The boat then took us back to the harbour, and after more tiresome waiting (spent the time getting to know the other tourists on board), we started on the dreadful return bus ride to Hanoi’s city centre.
We got the same driver, and he continued to drive at a lighting speed comparable to Usain Bolt’s best records all the way back to Hanoi. This time round, they filled the mini bus to its full capacity, so it was a stuffy, claustrophobic ride. When we got back to Hanoi, there was only time for a quick dinner, a bath (we got a room at Queen Hotel at a discounted rate to use their showers), and then Tony our booking agent escorted us all the way to our sleeper train which will take us to Lao Cai. It’s from there that we will make our winding way up into the mountains, to my favourite stop of the trip — Sapa.