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Monday 2 Nov 2015
Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Amazing Caves in Ha Long Bay

In stark contrast to my previous visit to Halong Bay, we were greeted with blue skies.  There was a boat waiting for us at the jetty steps and we donned our bright orange lifejackets for the short trip out to our junk boat.  A few years back, the Vietnamese government clamped down on less reputable firms offering Halong Bay tours after a number of tourists died when an unsafe boat sank during the night.  The best friend of one of Ailsa’s colleagues was one of them.  As a result of the changes, all the approved tourist boats are now painted white and safety standards have improved considerably.  This was already in place when I was here but Ailsa’s last visit had been seven years ago, so she saw a real difference. 

It only took a few minutes to reach the boat, the Hoa Binh, which was very similar to the one I’d stayed on before.  The captain welcomed us aboard and introduced his crew.  Ailsa and I were sharing a cabin on the lower deck.  There are doors on either side but the cabins span the full width of the boat, each with two beds and an ensuite shower room.  We were impressed with the cabin, which was very nicely presented, but slightly alarmed to find men right outside our window.  It took us a minute to realise they were still tying up the small boat we’d come out on, rather than trying to spy on us, but we made a mental note to close the curtains before getting changed!

The table was beautifully set for lunch when we joined everyone back upstairs a few minutes later.  We had a local beer with lunch, the appropriately named Ha Long Beer.  It was cold and delicious and went well with the enormous banquet.  We started with delicious grilled prawns, crab cakes and spring rolls, then soup, before the main courses of chicken, pork, vegetables, rice and noodles arrived.  There were a couple of people who didn’t eat meat or seafood, so they sat at one end of the table and were overwhelmed with the number of dishes prepared just for them.  Linda, the only true vegetarian, was given enough food for four people just for herself!

Utterly stuffed, we moved up to sit on the roof deck in the sunshine as the boat moved among the limestone karst islands.  Halong Bay is made up of thousands of rocky pillars, ranging in size from Cat Ba island, over 3km long, to tiny mounds of rock peeping out of the waves.  Most of them have been named, such as Kissing Cocks Islands – that one didn’t make us giggle at all, nope, not us.  The Vietnamese name ‘Ha Long’ means ‘descending dragon’.  Legend has it that the Chinese armies were driven back after the Vietnamese King prayed for help from the gods.  A giant dragon flew down from the clouds and dived into the bay.  The Chinese ships fled in panic and the islands grew up to protect the bay from future invasions.

We arrived in a small bay within a ring of islands.  The crew ferried us over to a jetty on one of these islands.  We climbed up a steep pathway cut into the rock to reach the entrance to a cavern.  Nguyen led us down into the cavern, which was bigger than initially expected.  He pointed out stalagmites and stalactites, showing us rocks which looked like turtles or faces and getting us guessing what the next one looked like. 

He then told us how the people of Halong bay still hide in the cave during terrible storms.  The women had ventured deeper into the cave and discovered a truly ‘amazing’ sight.  Women are now brought here before their wedding to visit the ‘amazing’ cave.  He sent us through first to see if we could spot the ‘amazing’ sight they’d discovered.  I went first, climbing up the steps that led through a narrow archway.  On the other side, the rock opened out again to reveal an enormous cavern that stretched way back into the island.  It was at least 10 times the size of the last one.  The centre of the cavern was supported by a thick pillar of rock, but it wasn’t the cavern or pillar which made the women cry ‘amazing!’, but the large stalagmite seemingly growing out the side of this rock pillar at about 45 degrees…  Just in case there was any doubt, they’d shone a couple of red spotlight beams right on it.  We obliged by enthusiastically crying ‘amazing!’ and laughing, but Isabelle got a bit embarrassed when Nguyen suggested a few photo poses for Christopher. Awkward… 

We followed the pathway deep into the back of the cavern, admiring the rock formations and marvelling over the thousands of years it would have taken for them to be created.  The whole cave was, well, amazing.

We came out higher up the rock wall, where a wooden deck had been built to provide a beautiful view out across the water.  Our boat had been joined by several others, all waiting peacefully in the setting sunlight.  As we got back in the little transfer boat, Ailsa noticed a small shrine on the side of the next island.  Nguyen told us it was a memorial for people who had died in the bay, in particular a tourist boat which had sunk.  We don’t know if it was the same accident one Ailsa’s friend had died in, but it was both sobering and comforting at the same time.  Sobering to remember that tragedies happen in the middle of carefree holidays, but comforting to know the locals here still remember what happened and ensure those people are not forgotten.

Our journey back to the boat was timed perfectly, as we passed through the shadows between islands and watched the sun head towards the horizon.  We took our cameras up to the top deck and watched the glowing orange ball drop slowly behind the last silhouetted peak.  While the bar wasn’t quite up to the standard of the catamaran we’d had in the Galápagos, they still made us a great G’n’T.  Happy hour meant three for the price of two, and it would have been rude not to!

We had moved down to the dinner table in the main cabin when we heard a shout and activity form the back of the boat.  The crew had managed to harpoon a huge fish, which they’d attracted with lights shone into the water.  It was at least a metre long and took several of them to get it out of the water.  We all traipsed out to have a look, but weren’t expecting to see it still thrashing around.  They eventually freed the multiple barbs on the harpoon and carried the fish triumphantly through the cabin towards the kitchen.

Most of us were still quite full from lunch, but the dinner was even bigger.  We were served an assortment of seafood starters and spring rolls.  This was followed by beef soup, stir fried vegetables, chicken and yet more rice and noodles.  The main dish was steamed fish served in a carrot fishnet.   The fish wasn’t the one we’d just seen paraded past the table – Nguyen told us they would earn quite a bit by selling that themselves – but it was definitely a discussion point. We couldn’t work out how they had made such a big net out of one continuous piece of carrot. 



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Scenic Vietnam 2015

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Halong Bay boat trip

Halong Bay boat trip

18 months after I came home from my travels, I finally dusted off the backpack and set out for Asia again. Vietnam was one of my favourite countries and remained high on the list of places to revisit. This time, I went back on the road with Intrepid

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