We signed up for a $35 per person day trip to Halong Bay at the Little Hanoi Hotel. It was relatively expensive compared to the one being offered by a Sinh Cafe Open Tour (a fake Sinh Cafe) for $28. Julie came down with amoebiasis so she was unable to join us.
I really marvel at how the Vietnam tour operators are able to mix and match everyone to the tour they signed-up. On the way to Halong City to board the boat, half of the bus were taking a 3-day tour and the other a 2-day tour. The four of us–Rhoda, Eva, Jeanette, and I– were the only ones on a day trip. We were told by our guide that once at Halong, we were to be turned-over to another guy. We arrived at the busy busy dock and were dropped off at the sidewalk nearby where other tourists were waiting. A rigadon of mini buses and tourists ensued with some getting off one and getting on another. A guy came and asked us to write our names on a piece of paper. He talked to our guide and a friendly discussion ensued. From their actions, especially with the other guy getting our guide’s documents, it appeared that they were haggling who was going to what tour. I was right. Our guide got the 2-day tour as his friend (referring to the other guy) wanted to go to Cat Ba Island which was on the 3-day tour itinerary. “Oh,” he exclaimed when he saw us. It kinda made me think that we’d been forgotten.
There were about 15 of us and we were led to our boat named Dang Tam. Rooms were on the lower deck while the middle deck was the dining area. It seemed well-maintained and clean. We all settled ourselves in the dining area with us taking the 4-seat table and the rest (who were all whites) took the dining table. Our guide explained how the trip would go. We would cruise along the bay to Hang Sung Sot cave, disembark, explore the cave, then back to the boat. Then we would be taken to a floating house for kayaking. The 2-day tour people would of course stay overnight on the boat while the four of us return to the dock by speedboat.
Lunch was fish, tofu, rice, and lots of vegetable. It was quite good and plentiful. There really wasn’t much to see at the bay as mist covered the far-off limestone cliffs. When our boat finally entered the waters in the vicinity of the cave, I finally saw the Halong Bay I’ve seen in pictures. Immense limestone outcrops studded the waters while floating houses took root at nearby cliff shores. This was also the Halong Bay that was on everyone’s itinerary. The dock to the cave was filled with boats coming and going.
Steep concrete steps led to the mouth of Hang Sot cave. It was a little traffic on the path that wound around the cave as there were so many people. The cave is really huge and well-lit. Our guide, who turned out to be very talkative and funny, pointed out different rock formations that resembled animals and people. Most of the time though you’d have to kinda force your imagination to “see” it. What was quite obvious was a phallic-looking rock formation that was lit in pink!
The cave is really beautiful but I couldn’t help shake-off the “it looks like a theater show” feeling. There’s definitely no spelunking here as the cave was obviously “fixed” to create that concrete path than led one to the chambers. Considering that about half of the people going-in were elderly Europeans and North Americans, the people running the tourism show can’t expect any clambering going on. There was full illumination from planted lights and I even spied a speak sticking-out from underneath some loose soil and rocks. Perhaps there’s a light and sound show?
We exited the cave to a wooden walkway that led back to the dock. Back at the boat, our guide asked us if we wanted to pay additional for the speedboat to tour us around the bay first before bringing us back to Halong as we were not doing any kayaking anyway. We met our speedboat at one of the floating houses and for 300,000 VND we got about 15 minutes of touring the bay.
I’ve never taken a speedboat ride before and they’re not called speedboats for nothing. We all shrieked as we roared away. The young man who was our driver probably took it as yells for excitement as he suddenly swerved. We shrieked again. He swerved to the right. “No no no no!” I turned to him, shaking both my head and gesturing wildly. He understood we were in no mood for a roller-coaster ride especially since we had no life jackets.
He could speak no English but he tried his best to communicate with us. He was gentle after all, even offering to bring us close to some cliffs and taking our picture. The bay was really beautiful and I just wished we knew how to swim so we wouldn’t be afraid to go kayaking—the best way to explore. The sound of the boat kinda distracted from the atmosphere but as soon as the engine’s were off and we drifted along the water, it was just perfect.
The 15-minute ride to Halong City was bumpy as we were going against the current but our driver expertly maneuvered the boat. We were at full speed and it was really chilly. Thankfully there water wasn’t rough or we would have been drenched with sea spray.
Someone met us at the dock and brought us to one of the waiting mini vans. Several minutes later, people arrived, presumably day-trippers too and we headed back to Hanoi. It way past dinner time when we got back to the hotel and people were just getting ready for the New Year’s Eve activities.
It’s a little insane to be doing Halong as a day trip. The long travel time (4 hours each way) makes you spend more time on the road than on the boat. The bay and the karsts are best explored slowly and dreamily. I will definitely go back and explore the rest of the bay including Cat Ba Island and Lan Ha bay which I heard were even better. In the meantime, I gotta learn how to swim so I can kayak with confidence.