Halong Bay is the jewel of the crown, the best site the Vietnamese have and for good reason. It is an area close to Haiphong, a bay in the Gulf of Tonkin, where the legend said that the dragon who left the land to go into the sea , smashed the earth with his tail and broke it in many pieces, before disappearing into the sea. So the bay has many islands, somewhere around 1600, and it would take a long time to see all of them. There are trips of 1-4 days to see something and they cater to all categories of travelers on boats that sail the gulf. I left around 7:30am from the hotel, and in the bus I found an eclectic group, mainly French with some Malaysians, an American and an Irish. The bus ride to Halong City, the newly developed city that is the hub for the bay cruises, was about 4 hours with a stop in between.
We arrived at 11:30am and at 1:00pm boarded the boat and after some unexpected delays we started to cruise. The weather was not good at all, something that we understood is typical for this time of the year, especially for the month of March where a sort of continuous drizzle is hanging in the air, but is so thin that you don’t get wet on your clothes just on your hair. The immediate effect is that the visibility decreases considerably and everything floats in a kind of mist. I knew about it, a very similar weather with the one we had in Yangshuo several years ago, and the landscape is identical. The boat was pretty big, with cabins for sleep, very comfortable and, as usual in Vietnam, very clean. We cruised for an hour, with limited visibility and we arrived at some beautiful caves and got down to visit them. All sorts of legends and stories abound about these grottoes , most of them fabricated by the guides, talking about dragons, princes and princesses and their 100 children, but the bottom line is that they are very beautiful limestone caves, unfortunately packed with all the tour groups that visit them in the same time. After this short visit we got on the boat again and we cruised to a floating fishing village, floating platforms in the bay where the fishermen live, the plan being to buy fish, but in the end nobody did it. We continued to a place where they were renting kayaks but again with no clients from our side and finally we stopped on an island, from whose top the visibility was great, or as great as can be in the misty weather. The weather started to improve and in the evening it cleared out, and you could see even stars on the sky. The entire landscape is made out of rock formations that sprout out of the sea, peaks, higher and lower, with vegetation on them and you navigate through this maze enjoying the beautiful view. In spite of the bad visibility, the clouds and fog gave a more mysterious look to the place, and you had more chances to see the dragon that people repeatedly said they saw coming out of the sea. I did not see exactly the dragon, but I have to check what is on video, and maybe, maybe…Meanwhile the crew of the boat fed us, gave us the keys for the cabins, and at 5:00pm we got electricity and hot water, so we went for a quick shower. Most of the people were intrigued about my camera, usually the Westerners are more intrigued than the locals who think only that is very expensive, and we started to talk, the French, from La Rochelle, proving to be very nice, however they could not stop mentioning the Romanian gypsies who are prowling the people in France. The two dinner tables were organized by languages, the French at one table and the English speaking at the other. Again, I was impressed with the Malaysian couple, Chinese descendant, who were speaking very well English, and he told me many things about the politics in Malaysia, where the Chinese and the Indians do not have too much of a say in politics, that is controlled completely and very authoritarian by Malay. This is the third couple from Malaysia I am traveling with and I cannot say how impressed I am with their command of English and I say this in comparison with the Vietnamese, who even if they speak very well, especially the guides, it’s almost impossible to understand them and nothing that require a little more finesse in term of tenses is understood by them. In the end, I chat with Emin, from Ireland, a very nice Irish boy who did not want to go to Sapa because there were no Irish pubs and Saturday is St Patrick’s Day, a very important event for any Irish person. He told me that he watches every year the NY Irish parade broadcast in Ireland. Also, it was Aaron from Boise. ID, who was happily traveling since April last year, part time in the US and part time outside, but he was feeling that the end is near and he should come back, but it was still a chance to extend the trip to meet some friends who were going in the fall in Nepal. We had a long chat followed by a game of Switch, a card game Emin taught us and we had great fun playing, sometime late after the French and Malaysians went to bed. But the fun had to stop because at 10:30 pm the engine was supposed to be cut off and we still can enjoy everything but in the dark. Emin and Aaron went to sleep and I got on the top deck of the boat. It was magnificent!. The clouds cleared and you could see far away Halong City. We were anchored in the middle of a bay surrounded by peaks that were poking out of the water, and also surrounded by other boats that all were drifting at anchor. It was so quiet and beautiful that it took me a long time to decide to go to sleep in my cabin. It was warm and you could stay on the lounge chairs on the deck, close your eyes and feel how the boat drifts. All the boats, or most of them , had the lights off. The whole experience was magical. Finally, I decided to go to sleep, not for any other reason but I got asleep several times on the lounge chair. After a night sleep in the village followed by another in the sleeper train, here I was sleeping on a boat. I went directly to sleep and I woke up in the morning, hopefully for a better weather but the clouds were even worse than the previous day, so after we ate our breakfast we cruised back to the harbor in Halong City where we arrived at 11:00am as scheduled.
We had quite a long lunch and after some delays with the buses, during time the pearl sellers were prowling on us to purchase their wares, they succeeded to cram 21 people in a minivan and we got on our bus for the 4 hour trip to Hanoi, where we arrived at 5:30pm. Here the weather was a little better but not very different and in the evening the same drizzle came over the city. As a result I had doubts if to go tomorrow to a trip or not, but I checked the weather and tomorrow is supposed to be sunny, so I will go. Here , I had to solve several issues and the first was to see how I will get to Laos. Investigating further they told me that it may take 17-22 hours by bus and everybody gave me a different estimate, so I figured out that is not a pretty set deal and you may get stuck in customs for a long time. So I decided for a flight, that I’ve crossed it before from my options when they told me that I can have only 20 kg, but you can have more than one pack. But balancing with 22 hours, I went for the flight, and after doing a research on the Internet for the type of plane they use, ATR72 ( French) that in my mind was confused with IAR72 (Russian), I bought a direct flight to Luang Pabrang, Saturday at 3:00pm, for an one hour flight. Nobody knew what planes they fly and neither who makes them! This took a while, and after that I had to go to the store where I bought the jacket to ask them something and quickly to the Water Puppet Theater, a famous tradition in Hanoi, where by chance I was able to get a ticket for the 8:00pm show, everything else being sold out. The Puppets were very nice, the show was color full and entertaining. They have these puppets in a pool of water and they manipulate them horizontally from the back of a curtain, different that the vertical way that is in use everywhere. Stories, traditions, legends with music, etc. I was starving and from the theater I went and ate in a very nice restaurant on the shore of Hoang Kiem Lake that is in the middle of Hanoi, at the base of the Old Quarter. After dinner, it came the phone moment, unfortunately the connection was not great and, before I got to the internet in the hotel, I stopped to one of the many bootleg CD places and I bought 6-7 new CDs. Last night when I finished to write this I tried to post but the internet in the hotel died. I saved it and tried again this morning still to no avail, and I hope that now it will work.