Handy hint – scroll down for the photos of Halong Bay!
I’m probably not ever going to be known as the most organised person in the world, and there was further evidence of this in the form of our trip to Halong Bay (that beautiful place where Top Gear converted their scooters into boats and went looking for the floating bar…)
We were in Hoi An when we first began to think about coming here. Me being clever, I looked at a map and saw there was an airport closeish to Halong in a city called Haiphong. I quickly found us two dirt-cheap flights with VietjetAir.com and booked the tickets. I figured we’d fly up there, cutting out a loooong bus or train ride, hop on a boat and head out to paradise. Clever John.
Things began to go awry when we got to Danang Airport (close to Hoi An). Our flight was delayed, but no problem! We could relax in a spacious airport. Or if we got there in a year’s time we could – they’re currently enlarging the airport and they blooming well need to – it was so cramped and packed with people. The plane was much the same – I’ve never been on one that was so loud. The leg room wasn’t ideal for someone with long Western legs either!
Anyway, we got to Hai Phong eventually and settled into our hotel and got onto the task of sorting some sort of cruise in Halong Bay. That’s when we realised that 99% of the trips go from Hanoi, even though it’s quite a bit further away from Halong. No bother, we eventually found a local travel agent and contacted him. He then proceded to turn up at our hotel at 11pm in the middle of a rain storm to discuss what we’d like to do (keen!). We booked onto a two day, one night cruise to begin the next day.
The following morning we were picked up by car and driven to Halong port. This wasn’t the most relaxibng drive, mainly due to the psychotic local bus drivers – at one point we had buses coming at us down both sides of our car, and we also saw a local guy get whacked off his scooter by a scaffolding pole hanging off the back of a truck.
Anyway – the sun was out and the weahter was hot and we arrived at the docks ready for a great trip. Our guide greeted us with the news that our cruise had been cut down to a one day trip as there was a storm coming in that night and the local government don’t let the cruise boats out in bad weather – fair enough, the junks don’t look like they’d handle it really.
We boarded our boat, which was actually pretty nice and found that the only other passengers were the ship’s owner and some of his pals, who seemed to have come to have a few beers and then play cards. So basically we pretty much had the boat to ourselves!
We’d heard a lot about how much of a tourist trap Halong Bay is, and how polluted and dirty it is, but when we were there it just wasn’t – it’s absolutely gorgeous. Yes, it’d be amazing to see it and be the only boat there, but that’s not going to happen. I expected the boats to be crammed everywhere, but it seems to be pretty well organised and spread out – we only hit one other boat, and that was just a friendly(ish) nudge as we left the harbour!
We were quickly among the islands, and it’s all you can do to just stand there taking in the view. I think it’s just the sheer number of islands that amazed me – they seemed to be never-ending…
Our first destination was Sung Sot Island and its majestic caves. Initially the best thing about them was that they were so cool inside – good to get out of the sweltering heat. There are three chambers, each bigger than the last. Because of the big difference in temperature and the amount of moisture in the air, the caves had a mistiness to them, which when mixed with the neon lighting in there made it feel other-worldly – definitely a must-see if you go to Halong Bay…
After the caves it was back to the boat (our fellow passengers were still playing cards) and time for lunch – many, many seafood delights followed, including fish wotsits, squid thingies, shrimp something-or-others and CLAMS. Me being such a lucky boy would get to taste them twice, but that’s for later in the story.
After lunch we headed to Ti Top Beach, which was crap. It’s a tiny beach on Ti Top island, which would be absolutely idylic had we not been there on a Saturday afternoon. It was pretty much standing room only on the beach and the water didn’t seem the cleanest either.
I’ve now learnt that there’s a great view from the top & I wish we’d done that rather than hanging around by the crowded beach. After we left Ti Top, it was time to begin to head back towards the docks at a leisurely pace…
Around two hours later, we arrived back at Halong City harbour. There was much confusion about how we were getting back to Hanoi – our tour agent told us we’d be on a minibus that would drop us at our hotel, but we ended up being put on a coach with another tour group. It was only once we’d been on the coach for an hour that their guide actually twigged we weren’t in his group and he didn’t have a clue who we were. Luckily he didn’t chuck us off the coach. The drive to Hanoi was long (over four hours) and it was quite late by the time we stopped for some food – Lisa went for the tasteless noodle soup and I opted for the uncooked pork spring rolls – absolutely (not) delicious.
Back on the bus we were watching a fantastic lightning storm in the distance (perhaps it was good not to be spending the night on a rickety old boat) when I began to feel pretty queasy – was it the long journey? The clams? The raw pork? Who knows, but I eventually had to dash down the bus and get the driver to pull over while my previous meals leapt out into a dark Vietnamese field…
We eventually reached somewhere in Hanoi and were told to swap onto smaller buses to go into the old quarter. Instead, we jumped/were pushed into a taxi to complete our journey. Finally we arrived at the hotel I’d booked earlier in the day to be told they’d given our room away as it was so late – joy. Fortunately they sorted us with a room at a posher hotel nearby straight away and for the same price (the specte of a stinging Tripadvisor review is a useful tool sometimes!). All in all a pretty shambolic arrival in Hanoi – somewhere from everything we’d heard we’d been kinda dreading going to to. But you know what? It’s a great city – good food & drink, beautiful old buildings, rich and fascinating history – it’s perked me right up 🙂