Sunday, June 6, 2010

Arriving in Ha Noi, Bus Ride to Halong Bay, and a Three Day Cruise (Part 2)

We woke up Wednesday morning from a good night's sleep after our first night in Hanoi, and I think I even had some extra VND (Viet Nam Dong -- currency) in my pocket from our poker game the night before. We were now bright-eyed and bushy tailed with excitement for our next few days in Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island, an area in the northern region of Viet Nam. We were especially excited because it was not Hanoi which did not give us the best welcome to Viet Nam; plus, we really needed a break from the hot weather, honking, and motorbikes!

After a hearty breakfast, we went back to the travel agency that shuttled us to the bus station in Hanoi. We then bussed to Halong City and met our tour guide (a younger guy named Hai) and other tourists boarding boats for the night out on Halong Bay. By no real decision of our own, and probably a result of booking through the travel agency in the airport, we were about to spend the night on the boat with a very friendly Vietnamese family from Ho Chi Minh City.

The three of us and the twelve in the Vietnamese family (consisting of three generations) had an awkward start as the ice had not yet broken between our groups. As a rather large family group, three of us, and only three tables for lunch, the Vietnamese family--mostly the fathers/uncles--seemed to be awkwardly discussing at length about how to divide up the family and who would be sitting in the open seats at our table. What seemed to be the uncles (the fathers of the children) came to our table, sat down, and threw up their glasses of beer and ice for a toast. The ice had officially been broken, and now we could comfortably eat while listening to them speak Vietnamese about who knows what. Nevertheless, the meal has been one of the best yet in Viet Nam.

After our meal, we chatted with our tour guide named Hai about what to expect on our cruise. He told us we would be visiting caves, kayaking, swimming, hiking, and spending a few hours on Monkey Island. Our first stop: CAVES, but first I must digress for a moment to share the magnificent beauty surrounding us on the boat ride at all times: hundreds and thousands of karst formations, or rather, limestone islands rising out of emerald waters in the Gulf of the Tonkin. Once again, it was a breathtaking and marvelous chance to see something quite unique and incredible. It is difficult to put words to such beauty (much like the waterfall in Chiang Rai), so I captured a few great photos to help me out!

Alright, back to the CAVES! The boat was docked at the base of a limestone island, and Hai instructed our group to walk the plank . . . down to the dock and explore the cave. This was a great chance to stretch our legs. Thankfully, I was not getting sea sick so far, so I felt rest assured I would be fine for the remainder of the cruise. Plus, the water remained calm throughout our time on Halong Bay. As we entered the cave after a short hike up, the lighting inside really helped to add so much to the experience.

Hai kept us moving through the cave, telling stories about different rock structures and the things others would represent. It was great to have a guide so knowledgeable and fluent in English. We would later teach him how to play Texas Hold'Em Poker and then watch him take all of our VND! Back on the boat, we chatted up with Hai again, and at this point, some of the smaller children were up on the deck with us playing and the eldest girl, Linh, also talked with us about Ho Chi Minh City. Her English was also exceptional. Here is Hai, our phenomenal tour guide, and some of the young kids on the cruise with us.

After a while, we were at our next stop for the day: KAYAKING. We were told we only had about 20-30 minutes to be out in the bay, so we made our way to one of the islands that had a cave at the base, pulled our boats up on the beach there, and walked around the cave for a little bit. It was nothing too exciting, but it was fun to be out on the water and have a chance to jump in--at least I did! The water was perfect and quite refreshing but very salty. We made our way back to the boat to find the Vietnamese kids from the family having a blast trying to navigate their kayaks around.

Our last stop for the day and before dinner was back to the island pictured in a previous picture with a little pagoda at the top of it. It is an island called Dao TiTop Island, and it is named after Gherman Titov, a former Soviet Union hero. We hiked to the top (about 430 steps), and the views were incredible, but the hike up was exhausting!

Once we made our way back down Dao TiTop Island, the day's activities had caught up to us because we were growing tired and hungry. It was nearly 5pm, and as Hai was there to explain, it was time for showering, another meal, and a night on the boat playing poker.

Next up on The Dandygram: Halong Bay Cruise and Cat Ba Island, Part 3!

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