I am greeted by my driver just before 8am in the morning for our four hour drive to Halong Bay. The guide explains that Halong is 188km away. Hang on? Margaret River (in Western Australia) is 272km from Perth and it takes around three hours to drive to. Why is it going to take us so long to get there?
Well, let me tell you why.
Apart from the fact that the roads are not in the best shape and roadworks are under way in several spots, I doubt we got about 60km/hr for the whole drive. Like a class of pre-schoolers let loose with a box of crayons, Vietnamese drivers don’t really worry about staying in the lines. Which is fine, because in most cases, there aren’t any anyway. But there are the scooters and driving in this traffic is a constant exercise in weaving in front of or to the side of or in behind other road users, some who seem not overly worried by the size of the vehicle next to them or the consequences if they pull out in front of them. So it’s a good thing the driving is slow.
It’s also good because you get to observe local life as you drive along and gives you the chance to get a good snap or two.
Deciding on which Halong Bay cruise to do is a real task. There are lots of companies and lots on offer, which makes it difficult to separate one from the other.
I stuck to my usual theory of booking a company that was a little off the beaten track and I came across the Dragon Legend Cruise. Highly rated in their reviews, they were also an environmentally responsible company and their cruise route meant I wouldn’t be sailing with hundreds of other people. Then once I saw the room on board, I was hooked. Of course, I did splurge a little on this cruise, but given that everything else in Vietnam was so inexpensive compared to back home, I felt I could afford to and the environmentally responsible thing was really important to me too. The cruise sails to the quieter part of Halong Bay, Bai Tu Long Bay, far away from the crowds.
After our long drive, we arrive at the jetty where similar groups of travellers are getting ready to join their cruises. We are finally greeted by Kenny (not his real name, only one that is easier to pronounce!) and he cheerily leeds us to our tender, which is the small boat that will lead us to our ship, docked about five minutes away.
Our tender motors closer to our ship, which is floating not far in the distance. It looks incredible. The name Dragon Legend came about from the creation of Halong Bay where it was said that Mother Dragon and her children descended to help the Vietnamese people fight against invaders. The ship’s staff are standing on the stern of the boat waving at us, welcoming us aboard from the first moment.
First stop as we arrive on board, after being handed a refreshing glass of lemongrass and ginger tea, is our safety briefing and introduction. After that, we get the keys to our rooms. I can barely contain my excitement when I open the door to mine…
It’s just glorious and a shame I won’t be staying more than one night. I flop down on the bed quickly in the shape of a starfish, enjoying the soft, plush comfort. But only for a minute because there’s lunch to be had. All eleven courses of it! The food was incredible and it just kept coming. Beautiful small plates of fresh flavours, nothing too heavy, nothing overbearing. All washed down with a couple of glasses of wine and the best view in town.
Up next was a spot of kayaking in the Vung Dang – Cong Dam area. After a short ride in the tender to the kayak shed, we are soon gliding our way through the limestone casts, watching the afternoon give way to early evening.
Kenny calls ‘quick, quick’ and we all paddle double-time. Nearing the corner of a karst, we can see why. The sun is just finishing its descent from the sky, its blood red tail leaking across the water. It’s just beautiful.
It’s also the first of many incredible views we capture over the duration of the cruise.
Our cruise also gives us an insight into life on the water, as we watch the locals go about fishing. One clever chap rows his boat with his feet.
After kayaking, it’s time for dinner. More incredible food. The food on board all comes as a set menu, which little tastes of each dish. It’s a nice way to make sure you try the local cuisine and though there is a lot of it, it really isn’t over filling. In fact, it’s some of the best food I’ve eaten in Vietnam yet. Here’s some shots of some of the food we ate over the course of the two day / one night cruise…
Over night we have docked in the Tra San area, but when the sun rises and after the early morning tai chi class, we are on the move again, heading to the Cong Do area to explore the well hidden Thien Canh Son Cave. After breakfast, our tender takes us to the island which resembles a small beach. There are several steps from the beach up the cliff to the cave entrance. Inside, the caves are magnificently eerie, stalactites hanging from the ceiling. Outside the view of the surrounding waters and karsts is incredible. There is plenty of time to swim in the waters or kayak around the island before we head back to our boat.
Here’s me enjoying it all.
Returning to the boat, it was time for our lunch, the only buffet style meal on board, and then off we went to pack before checking out and boarding the tender to the jetty.
Once the cruise is over and we have returned to the jetty, we board our luxury vans again head to the village of Yen Duc in the Dong Trieu province of Vietnam. It’s a traditional agricultural village, but we are here to watch a Vietnamese water puppet show performed by local artists. It was very bright and colourful and you could understand the stories even if you couldn’t understand the language.
Then, slowly back to Hanoi’s old quarter, just in time for dinner.