Thursday, May 13, 2010

Halong Bay, Vietnam - 2010

Halong Bay lies in the northeastern part of Vietnam and is approximately 165 km away from the city of Hanoi. I have made some background checking beforehand and decided to only book the tour after we reached Hanoi. It’s normally cheaper that way rather than to book it earlier from Malaysia. We didn’t actually look around and compare prices from various Tour Agents in Hanoi, as time was not quite in our favour. We were waiting for a reply from Uncle Ben Taat, the owner of Nisa Restaurant on the Muslim Tour Package but till the day before we departed, he didn’t get back to us. So, we resorted to the one recommended by our hotel.

We began our journey at 8.30am from Hanoi and it took us about 4 hours by road to reach Halong. Just after we scraped through the hustle and bustle of Hanoi city, we came across the majestic Red River, the second longest river after Mekong. It was chilly and misty that morning. There were groups of Americans, Dutch, Russians, Filipinos, Thais, Vietnamese and of course our fellow Malaysians in the same coach. They were all nice people and we made friends with them all. Our Tourist Guide, aptly named Tuan, was a very charming young chap. He gleefully welcomed us on board and explained to us about the journey we’re about to embark on.

The ride was quite enjoyable at first with the ubiquitous scenery of paddy fields and small villages along the roadside. But after some point, we all got bored with that same scenery and took a nap instead. The road we took was small, winding and bumpy. After 2 hours on board, the coach stopped at a Tourist Centre (can’t quite recall the name of that place) for a quick food & toilet break. There were many coaches and buses there which I guessed most of them were headed towards Halong Bay! In that Tourist Centre we saw a few young Vietnamese girls putting together some beautiful Silk Paintings, a meticulously traditional Vietnamese embroidered painting using colourful threads. The paintings were meant for sale but it was a bit pricey. There were also other souvenirs for sale but it was double the price from the ones you can get in Hanoi.

We reached Halong Bay at 1.00 pm. The harbour was full with all kinds of tourists from all over the world. Hundreds of junks and luxury cruises were berthing on the water reaching out as far as your eyes can see. The view was incredibly spectacular! Our junk came just after 10 minutes of waiting and all of us went in and settled ourselves in the dining / seating area. We chose to sit with other Malaysians as we thought we could share similar things and made ourselves more comfortable. As our journey began, the guide told us that we could go up on the deck to catch a view from above. The weather was so nice and breezy. The scenery from the deck was breathtakingly gorgeous. There were hundreds of junks going the same way we were heading. It was as though we were in the midst of a war zone!! Seriously. The experience was rather remarkable.

The weather was overcast and a bit foggy later. I bet it was around 15 degree Celsius or lower especially when we reached far in the middle of the sea. We could see the amazing combination of fogs with the turquoise green waters of the bay and the limestone pillars, created some sort of a mystical atmosphere. The ambience was so peaceful and serene that it left us with a rather calm and relaxed mode. We were told by our guide that there were more than 1,960 limestone islands there. It was like heaven on earth. No wonder this particular place was twice recognized by UNESCO as a World Natural Heritage Area for its exceptional scenic beauty and outstanding geological and geomorphic values.

After 45 minutes of cruising, our junk stopped at a Fish Farming area where we could observe a few types of fishes and crustaceans in the water. You could actually buy them and had it cooked on the junk for your lunch if you want to. We didn’t buy anything from there because it was really expensive. A couple of small boats approached us the minute we stepped out of the junk, selling fruits and veggies i.e.: mangoes, berries, bananas, pineapples and tomatoes. I found it really interesting, just like the one we saw in Bangkok. I bought some berries from the seller at VND30,000 (RM6). I was not too sure what kind of berries they were but she told me it’s the Vietnamese Strawberries. It looked more like Gooseberries to me and it tasted sooooo sour!! Ewww...

Our lunch was already served on the junk (at the dining area) as we came up from the Fish Farm. We had requested for only Seafood and Veggies, so there was no meat in sight. Good! There were Fried Fish, Blanched Kangkung, Fried Omelet, Braised Beancurd, Fried Seafood Spring Rolls and Braised White Raddish with Squid for us. Our Malaysian friends bought some Crabs and Mussels at the Fish Farm, so we allowed them to savour that extra bit of ‘cholestrol’ there. We purchased some Young Coconut Drinks (VND50,000 for both, about RM10) at the fish farm and had them for our luncheon. We enjoyed the meal particularly because we were really hungry by that time. My son didn’t touch any of the food. As usual, this picky eater refused to eat anything that was not cooked to his liking. He had his Choco Rolls and Pringles I packed earlier in the bag for him.

Whoever were into kayaking had long gone to enjoy the rowing experience after the lunch but we just stayed on the deck and enjoyed the beautiful scenery of the bay. We didn’t bring extra clothes so we should avoid ourselves from getting into the kayaks because it would have definitely made us all wet. And in the cold weather, I’d rather stay on the junk. We took a lot of photos obviously. It was so scenic we can’t help it but to snap photos again and again. My son was so curious with the sound of echoes from the caves nearby so he kept shouting ‘HELLO’ and to his puerile excitement, it echoed back. It was hilarious. He was the only kid on board so it was OK for him to be extra ‘jakun’ :-).

The junk later brought us to one of the caves, the Thien Cung Cave for a brief hiking experience. Neither of us was generally interested in caves, but this cave was definitely worth a visit. Not only were the insides amazing, with huge open areas and beautifully shaped rock formations all stunningly lit-up with colourful lights, but the views of the bay from some of the openings were so spectacular. The guide charmed us with some folklores and myths about the caves, and kept asking us to guess the myriad shapes of the many stalactites and stalagmites. It was oddly bizarre that some of the formations really did look like animals i.e. Lions and Dragons. My son was thrilled and fascinated because this was his first ever experience of being in a cave.

After a group photo, we trekked down the hill and headed back to our junk. We reached the harbour in less than an hour and our coach was already waiting for us to bring us back to Hanoi. All in all, we had spent 4 hours on the junk plus the cave visit. The tour was at USD25 per person, so, it was really value for money to us. On our way back, we stopped at another Tourist Area and I bought another fridge magnet for myself, showing ‘Halong Bay, Vietnam’ - a nice small memento to bring back home. :-)


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