Choosing Hanoi as our destination was actually a really random moment -- it was over a couple of beers at Library with our uni friends, and I had randomly mentioned something along the lines of "oh, Ha Long Bay looks really pretty, maybe we can go there one day". Someone quickly googled it on their phone, agreed with me, and lo and behold, we were booking tickets to Hanoi during the next AirAsia cheap fares sale.
So if you may, visiting Ha Long Bay was actually the highlight of our trip! It's absolutely gorgeous. But before we get there, let's start from the beginning.
First, we needed a booking! We decided to book when we arrived instead of booking anything online, and so on Day 1 & Day 2, we made our way down Ngo Huyen St (just off Ly Quoc Su) where a whole stretch of travel agencies lie. After comparing prices, we finally stuck with Hien from Tuan Khanh Travel Agency where we let Adam worked his haggling magic.
You'll see that all the travel agencies call themselves or advertise Sinh Cafe in some way or another, but not all are really affiliated with the tour agency, this one included. Lol.
Anyway, we got ourselves a 3 day 2 night cruise, with 1 night on the boat, and another night on beach "bungalows" on Nam Cat Island in Haiphong. (Note that the term bungalow was used seriously loosely, but more on that in later posts -__-). This was USD 120 per person, with all food included. Note that you'll have to pay for drinks onboard though.
Tuan Khanh Travel Agency
Sinh Cafe - Open Tour
No. 5, Ngo Huyen St. (off Ly Quoc Su),
Old Quarter, Hoan Kiem,
Tel: +84 4 3828 5930
Hotline: +84 913 309 282
Ha Long Bay is actually some 160 km away from Hanoi city, so first you'll have to endure a 3-4 hour bus ride, along some majorly bumpy roads.
We got picked up around 8ish in the morning, where people were just about having breakfast or getting to work, which is always a very interesting sight. Where else would you see formally dressed men perched on such tiny little stools?
|Lots of ducks along the way.. being Malaysian, we initially thought it was rubbish.|
Our bus made one half-hour stop at a tourist shopping area, selling the usual stuff like clothes and souvenirs. What was really fascinating however, was the ladies doing embroidery work. Very quick, nimble and extremely focused.
|Some of their work... Isn't this amazing?|
|Row after row of intricate decorative stone carvings at the rest area.|
We arrived at the jetty nearly at noon, when the tourists were starting to pile in by the busloads. Non-stop activity going on here. So many people, so many buses, so many boats too!
|All lined up|
You'll have to board one of these smaller boats to get to and from your actual cruise with all your luggage, so please pack light! We brought a lot of water onto the boat (*kiasu) because we knew beforehand that drinks would only be available at a premium rate, so it was quite a challenge. :S
|All suited up and excited!|
We quickly made our way onto the boat, where we were greeted by our guide, Cherry. There are several floors. The main floor (pic on the right) is where the dining area and the kitchen is. This is followed by two floors of rooms, either single or family rooms, and then a top deck -- our favourite place to be. :D
The room we got had two single beds. It really isn't large, but it's very clean. The rooms are also all air-conditioned, but air-conditioning is only available at night. If I recall correctly, hot water is also only available at certain times of the day.
My favourite part of the room was the window that opens right out into the ocean from my bed! Absolutely amazing feeling :D
Not long after we settled down, it was time for lunch. We were pretty satisfied with the food -- there's a lot of variety (usually 6-7 dishes, plus fruit) and the seafood is good.
The squid and prawns, in particular, were awesome. Deep fried buttery squid and lightly cooked fresh prawns, all sweet and springy.
|Awesome view during lunch. :D|
Let me just say here that I'm really glad we made that random spur-of-the-moment decision that night because Ha Long Bay is absolutely gorgeous. :)
Ha Long translates into "descending dragon" and legend has it that the islands were created by a mighty dragon coming from the mountains. Dragon or not, it's a World UNESCO Heritage Site, and I can see why. The landscape is just breathtaking, being in the midst of open seas and countless clusters of limestone islands and islets surrounding you.
Of course, your boat guide will most definitely point out the Trong Mai Islet (rock of 'the kissing cocks'), one of the most photographed rocks in Halong Bay. Apparently a symbol of love, according to our guide Cherry. :p
|The top deck of our boat|
After lunch, we finally got to go up to the top deck of the boat, which is the best part of the cruise, in our opinion. Nothing beats sitting here, letting the wind whip through your hair and watching Ha Long Bay go by. :D Your hair won't sit still for a picture, believe me.
|Adorable girl from France playing with the fluttering flag|
After we were done ooh-ing and aah-ing at the top deck, we hopped onto the smaller boat again to visit one of the most famous grottos there -- the Sung Sot cave.
|Beautiful sight on the way to Sung Sot cave|
Hang Sung Sot or Sung Sot cave, located on the Bo Hon Island, is also known as the Cave of Surprises. We didn't know why, but boy were we in for a surprise.
It's not a particularly strenuous walk to get into the cave, but there are about 100 steps and some are just a tad steep. Get your camera ready though, because halfway up, you'll be greeted with this view...
The cave itself is quite spectacular, with a lot of individual chambers and an abundance of beautiful stalactite and stalagmite formations. The entire thing however, has been developed to be very "tourist-friendly" - lots of spotlights of different colours lighting up different walls, which I found a bit obtrusive to the whole experience. Of course, there was a lot of suspense over the "surprise" in this Cave of Surprises, which our guide Cherry kept on mentioning.
|Can you see a pair of lovers, and an elephant?|
We walked a little while more into the main chamber, one that was very large and spacious, and suddenly Cherry pointed out the "surprise"... Look a little closer...
-___- Great sense of humour, these Vietnamese.
As you exit the cave, remember to get your camera ready again, because you'll be able to look out over part of the bay. (I also think this is where a lot of photographers photograph Ha Long Bay, because it looks wildly familiar. Lol.)
|Group pic, all sweaty from climbing all those steps!|
From the cave, we again took a smaller boat to a small neighbourhood on water nearby.
...and got suited up to go kayaking!
Now, I can't swim. And Adam can't really swim all that well (so he may not be able to save me if I drown). I've only kayaked once in my life during a Leo camp way back in Form 5, and I suppose Adam has done some minimal kayaking during national service. Needless to say, I was close to peeing in my pants. (Ok lah and also extremely excited - I mean, kayaking in the middle of the ocean, in freaking Ha Long Bay? Heck, yes!)
|Off we go!|
It was really scary at first, not gonna lie! But of course, as always, I was determined to take pictures. So I guess when I was distracted with the risk of camera falling into the water, it took my mind off my whole self falling into the water. HAHA.
|Holding two kayaks together for a group pic!|
The timing was absolutely perfect. The sun was just about setting, most of the other tourists had already kayaked and left and so we were rewarded with a peaceful, thoroughly amazing view of the bay.
In just a matter of minutes, the ombre-hued sky went from blue with streaks of pink, to a darker purple. And the beauty just calmed me down - suddenly I wanted to kayak forever. *hero
Isn't that gorgeous? <3
Of course, before we knew it it was completely dark, we couldn't really see any other kayaks and we paddled as fast as we could back to safety. Lol.
The cruise organized us a "sunset party" on the top deck but as you can see it, it was more like a party-in-the-dark LOL. Still, a very nice thought. I think during the middle of year, the day lasts a little longer, so the timing is probably just right for a sunset party back on board.
We quickly freshened up for dinner because we were starving and were greeted with the karaoke system all set up in the dinner hall, complete with disco ball. The staff were all very enthusiastic about making sure we partied and had a good time, but.. no takers. Haha.
Dinner was fab. Love how they even put thought into the presentation of the starters -- dimmed the lights and brought the candles -- much like the first dish at a wedding dinner here!
Thick, chunky crinkle-cut fries, fried with a hint of butter, were also very popular onboard. Very tasty, I think we got served that several times.
Another activity that the staff prepare for you at night is squid-fishing! The rods are all lined up at the helm of the boat, so some of the guys and kids went to try their hands at it.
I think Adam failed, while the kids from France got some. #kids1Adam0
|Adam & Wen|
We finally ended the day by playing with Zhen Han's torchlight app on his phone and my camera's shutter speed on a boat in the middle of the ocean. Holidays don't get any better than that.
And that's a wrap on Day 3 of our Hanoi travelogue! Indeed a perfect end to a perfect day in beautiful Ha Long Bay! :) More next on Day 2 of our cruise, and of course our night on those "beach bungalows" coming up.
For our other Hanoi posts:-
Breakfast at Pho 10 / exploring Old Quarter, visiting Hoan Kiem Lake & drinks at Avalon Cafe / dinner at Bun Cha Dac Kim / water puppet show at Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre
Vietnam Military History Museum / Temple of Literature / dinner at Ly Van Phuc (Chicken Street)