We’ve just returned from a 2 day trip to Halong Bay, 3 hours drive from Hanoi. It s a huge bay with limestone karsts rising up from the sea all around it. There are various ways to do the trip to the bay from day trips to week-long trips involving snorkelling, kayaking and lots of boats. We opted for the 2 day/1 night version to give us a flavour for the bay, but without missing out on the other things we wanted to see in Vietnam. Our trip cost us $32 each (and $16 for the children) with Fansipan Tours (not the other companies that all use similar names, in order to trade off their reputation) which was good value considering the standard of accommodation and meals. We left the city in a minibus at 9am, and were really pleased to find that there were only 7 of us in the minibus – not the normal tin-of-sardines-like 15 or 20.
When we got to Halong City, to board our boat, we were even happier. We were transferred onto a wooden junk, complete with double cabins, lounge and dining area, and a top deck with loungers. Wow! All this for $32. The food was some of the best we’d eaten in Vietnam, with sea-fresh fish, giant prawns, and plenty of meat and vegetables. So much in fact, that the seven of us on the boat couldn’t finish it all. Our luck got even better when the girls were given their own cabin (we’d paid half-price, and they got their own cabin – have we died and gone to heaven?).
After lunch during a trip across the bay, we were guided through the huge ‘Surprise’ cave system in one of the limestone peaks. Although none of us are into caves really, this one was impressive. Although the cave was cooler than outside, it didn’t justify the use of penguin-shaped bins that you can make out in the picture. Nobody seemed quite sure how a limestone cave in Vietnam ended up with them – maybe a mistake on a delivery note!
In the evening, after a swim, we dropped anchor alongside a floating village, comprised of individual fish farms, floating on the water. Some of them are connected by wooden planks, but many sit on their own like this one, with a small bamboo boat when they want to go somewhere. We couldn’t believe it when we saw that whole families were living in these huts – parents, small children and even dogs. One family had 2 small children, about 4 years old, and two dogs. All cramped together in a space no bigger than our garden shed, with just two planks to walk around on outside. We could sometimes convince ourselves that our garden was a bit too small, but this brings reality home. If we felt hemmed in we could just open the gate and go for a walk. These people were like prisoners, with the boat their only route out.
After a year all travelling together, and all sleeping in the same room, it was somehow predictable that the girls didn’t want to sleep in their own room, so Sarah and I ended up in separate cabins, with a child each. Hope this doesn’t happen when we get home!
It turned out to be one of the best, most enjoyable trips we’ve taken on our journey. After all of the peace and solitude of Halong Bay, it was a bit of a shock to get back to Hanoi at the end of the second day, to the noise, chaos and pollution of the streets. Perhaps we should have stayed an extra few days on the junk!