How long Halong
One of the must do trips in Vietnam is Halong Bay, a set of seemingly never-ending islands with imposing cliffs and columns of rock stretching out into the sea. It’s really hard to describe the sheer vertical rock walls that come straight out of the sea to form the islands.
In my opinion, one of the biggest challenges with Halong Bay is actually getting the trip booked in the first place. There are literally hundreds of operators and every operator seems to have a suite of different options. You can do a two day cruise or a three day cruise and then just to add to the complexity, a load of operators will basically palm you off onto another boat for one of the days. We decided to place our trust in TripAdvisor and picked one of the better rated cruises which supposedly offered a four star option (Halong Lavender Elegance Cruises). I’m genuinely not sure what the difference between the three and four star cruises are. Looking around the boats, most of them look pretty similar (and not many look like the photos on their websites!).
The next challenge is to try and find a decent price – we wanted to do the three day, four star cruise which on the website is quoted at $260 per person. We hopped on the live chat on their website to speak to one of their booking agents and managed to talk them down to $200 with a free transfer to and from Hanoi thrown in (which should have added $50 per person). At the time, this seemed like a good price saving us about $200 but when we arrived in Hanoi I definitely saw cheaper prices written up on the boards in tourist shops so I suspect we could have got something much cheaper there! Anyway, not the easiest process but we were off to Halong with the sound of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers song, Otherside, repeating in my brain every time someone said Halong (listen to the song below and you’ll realise why)!
Ti Top Island
We were picked up from our hotel in Hanoi in the morning and had to literally load our bags and jump onto the bus while it rolled along very slowly as it wasn’t allowed to stop! Arriving into Halong Bay, you suddenly realise there are boats literally everywhere ranging from a relatively traditional Vietnamese style boat through to massive cruisers which seem to accommodate hundreds of people. A taxi boat took us out to our boat and, after making sure we’d briefed ourselves on the comedy safety instructions (see below), we enjoyed lunch as we cruised out into the (misty) bay.
I’ve been to Halong before but it still amazed me seeing the pillars of rock appear for the first time again and just not being able to see the end of the islands. The boat took us along and moored up at Ti Top Island. For some reason, Ho Chi Minh decided to name Ti Top island after a famous Russian Cosmonaut, Gherman Titov (presumably translates to Titop in Vietnam?) who was amongst other things (such as being the second Russian in space after Gagarin) the first man to vomit in space. The island is one of the most stunning places in Halong, Vietnam and if you ignore the fleet of tourist boats – probably in the world. The island is tiny but has a small beach and path of a few hundred steps up to the top of the island where the view is stunning.
After New Zealand, I’d re-discovered a love of swimming in any water I could so I couldn’t resist running down the beach and diving into the water to the shock of the hordes of Chinese tourists posing for photos on the beach!
One thing I learnt from this swimming in Halong, although not for a good few days later, is that although the water doesn’t smell initially, if you don’t rinse off your shorts in fresh water in a couple of days they will hum. Lesson learnt!
Even after Galapagos, I’m still a sucker for some wildlife so I was pretty excited to hear that we were going to see monkeys. We hopped on a bamboo boat (a strange local rowing boat where they manage to row facing forwards – the British Rowing technical panel would have a field day) and went through Luon Cave where on the other side was a load of monkeys picking food out of the water (mainly tourist leftovers and rubbish!). It was a pretty cool experience although to be honest, we’d rather have been on kayaks but we were told we’d get bored of that as we were doing it the next day.
We were looking forward to a quiet night on the boat but hadn’t quite appreciated that we would be surrounded by about 50 other boats some of which were belting out karaoke at a ridiculous volume for most of the night. I’m not sure quite what the love of karaoke is all about here but it seems like you don’t have to be good at it here!
Fairy Cave, Pearl Farm & Kayaking
The next day started well with some Tai Chi but was frankly a bit of a disappointment as we were palmed off onto another boat for the day whilst our boat went back to pick up the new guests. The boat does take you out further into the bay but to be honest, it’s not really that different and the boat really wasn’t to the same standard as the boat we had been on.
The first stop of the day was probably the highlight though as we went crawling around Fairy Cave (so called as locals claim to have found fairies there. You literally have to get on your hands and knees and crawl through gaps to get to each of the three chambers.
After Fairy Cave, the next stop is the Pearl Farm. If you head there you can look forward to being rushed through the interesting bits by the guide (how they farm the oysters, what different types of pearls there are and how they seed the pearl) so that you can be given as much time in the gift shop as humanly possible!
The day then just got a bit weird as we were taken to a spot to go kayaking and handed the worst condition kayaking kit I’ve ever used and told to kayak around to a beach. With the blades just about managing to stay on the paddle, as we tried to avoid splinters of the fibre glass kayak, we just about made it to the beach. The beach was full of rubbish and even more strangely someone had built a kitchen on it. It soon transpired that someone was building a load of infrastructure on the island for tourists to be able to stop at but it wasn’t finished yet!
We had one more beach stop where inevitably I dove straight into the cold water before we were returned to our original boat for dinner, a spot of (unsuccessful) squid fishing and, thankfully, quieter neighbours than the previous night.
For our last day on the boat, we had one more cave to visit (Surprising Cave) before motoring back to the mainland. The cave is huge and each of the guides will make up a number of names for various rock formations some of which have passing resemblance, some of which are quite rude and some seem to bear no connection with what you’re looking at!
Waiting for the Train
Back on the mainland we headed back to Hanoi, our hotel from the first couple of nights in Hanoi had kindly allowed us to leave our bags there while we waited for our train and went for a bit of dinner. We chose Downtown Restaurant which had been recommended by the hotel and turned out to be a great spot. Our waiter, Dee, took about half an hour to chat with us and give us some tips on where to head in our next few stops. He also recommended an app which turned out to be a really time and money saver throughout our trip. The app is called Grab and is kind of like Uber but based over here and you can get cars, tuk tuks, motorbikes or various other things through it. The great thing is that the price is fixed so there is no negotiation and you basically get the same price a local would get. If you’re travelling around this neck of the woods, we’d recommend it as indispensable!
Triple H Train (Hanoi – Hue – Hoi An)
We’d decided that rather than add another flight to our growing list of flights, we’d experience something different and get the train down the country. The train line runs all the way from Hanoi through to Ho Chi Minh City (taking around xx hours in total). We didn’t get it that far instead opting for the overnight run to Hue on the sleeper train before a few days later getting the train again for the relatively short hop to Hoi An (you have to get the train to Da Nang and then a bus or taxi to Hoi An).
I’d done the train previously with my brother Jamie on another trip so kind of knew what to expect but Sue was pretty worried! There are all sorts of stories of what can happen on sleeper transport around the world and I’m sure you do get bad experiences but we were really lucky again and had a good run down to Hue. I do think you’d get a worse experience getting on further down the line as there are slight quirks like the fact they don’t change the sheets so if you’d got on at Hue you’d get the sheets that had been used from Hanoi. Having set off at 22.00 the night before we pulled into Hue shortly after 11 in the morning and for the first time in a long time it was raining!
Imperial Citadel – Hue
Having spent a whole month doing G Adventures tours around South America, it was really strange to turn up at our hotel and find a G Adventures group staying there. Each time we saw a notice up for the group, we had to remind ourselves that it wasn’t for us (even if we did use their itinerary for a few pointers on restaurants!).
The rain, that had started as we arrived in Hue, continued pretty much our whole time in Hue – Sue was pretty happy as being Irish this is much more her environment than 30 degree heat! I, on the other hand, was fed up of it pretty quickly. We didn’t let it stop us doing what we had planned in Hue though and we decided to wander around the Imperial Citadel built in the 1800s. A lot of the citadel was damaged during the war but its gradually being rebuilt bit by bit.
We’d decided to wander around ourselves as we were quite conscious of our budget after a relatively expensive few days in Halong and had imagined in each of the buildings we’d be able to read all about them on some information boards. In reality this isn’t really the case and, in fact, in the whole of Vietnam we felt the information boards around museums and historic buildings were generally a bit lacking. If I was going back again, I’d probably dip into my pocket and pay for a guide as I think it would have actually been more interesting that way.
Off to Hoi An
Hue was interesting in its architecture but after a couple of nights there we were ready to move on again and so in the morning ordered our Grab taxi and headed to the station ready for our train to Hoi An and hoping for some sunshine!