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Travel stories by a nature lover – stories about nature and life

Halong Bay

November 2007

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Arrival at Hanoi

I was in Hanoi with two of my colleagues, Brijes and Goutam for official work. When our schedule provided us with a free weekend, the obvious destination for the weekend was Halong Bay. We did not have much information about what was in store for us, but few facts about Halong Bay were attractive. That it was located in the seas and we had the option to spend the night on a boat in the middle of the seas was strong enough reason for myself, Brijes and Goutam to go ahead with our trip.
Initially we scouted around the Hoem Kiem area for a reliable tour operator and get an idea about the cost of the trip. The price variation ($30 – $200) for a 2 day trip was enough to confuse us. Also, being the peak tourist season, the operators that looked reliable to us were sold out for the weekend. So, without going into any complications, we arranged for the tour through the hotel travel desk. The price was an affordable $57/person.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Journey Started
We were picked up from our hotel early in the morning at around 8 AM in a mini van. The van was full as expected.

Jetty at Halong Bay

Jetty at Halong Bay

Our guide for the trip was a gentleman named Kong – who worked full time as a travel guide. He knew three languages other than Vietnamese and worked with the European tourists.

On the way
Within half an hour we were outside the city limits and the road went through green farmlands. It was a welcome break from the crowded streets of central Hanoi. Men with their traditional big straw hats were working on the farms. Past a number of small Vietnamese towns, it was break time after around 2 hours of travel. We stopped in a big shop on the highway which sold traditional Vietnamese handicrafts. Some of them were really good and the price was tempting. Specially paintings made by thread weaving – something unique and really wonderful.

At Halong Bay
At last we reached Halong Bay at around 11:30 AM. The reception area was quite big and organized. In fact it was comparable to any other international tourist spot. For the first time, we realized that it was a famous tourist destination among the Europeans.
The Junk in which we sailed

The Junk in which we sailed

It was crowded and we had to wait for another 30 minutes while our guide Kong went to buy the tickets. In the meantime we purchased some water and a cap with Vietnam written on it in red. Later on, when I was trekking in Nepal, one of the hotel attendants one day fearfully asked me ‘Are you a communist?’ Later I realized that he had seen the hat lying on the table and thus the question.

After a short wait, we followed our guide Kong towards our junk. It was quite a long walk, going across other junks that were lined up one behind the other through there narrow alleys and dodging other people who were returning back from their trips. Our junk was a small one, with two rooms at deck level and another two rooms above it. Apart from we three, our only companion on board was a Spanish couple.
Halong Bay

Halong Bay

After a welcome drink (which was the only free drink on board), the junk set sail. We passed different types of junks on the way – big, small, fancy…. One of the attendants brought out her ware of pearl ornaments and after some failed attempts to sell them, tucked them away and started to prepare lunch. Lunch was delicious – salad, prawns, chicken and prawn. By this time, the our view of horizon was being obstructed by small hillocks at a distance. As we moved near them, we forgot lunch and were on the deck with our cameras. It was wonderful! Limestone islets were scattered all over the surface of the sea. Some were small single rock islets, some were big islands. Some were green, others barren with the rock surface exposed. The place looked out of the world.

Inside Sung Sot
We were proceeding towards the Sung Sot cave, which was one of the biggest caves at Halong Bay. It was quite a steep climb from the jetty to the entrance of Sung Sot cave, but as we went up the view became better and better.
Inside Sung Sot

Inside Sung Sot

The jetty below with the limestone islets at a distance and the junks scattered across the water, some with colorful sails, made a wonderful view. The inside of the cave was a different world. It was huge, and I think 5000 people can be easily accommodated inside it. There were limestone formations all around the cave. What struck us was the artificial lightning provided inside the cave. It somehow took away a lot of the beauty of the cave – the yellow and green colored lights somehow did not go well with the ambiance of the cave. Still, at the end of it, it was amazing! It seemed to be the ideal set of Indiana Jones movies. Was any part of the movie filmed here? We spent quite a long time in the cave.

Phantoms home
It was time to leave to the next place. Well, we had no idea that the next activity would be kayaking. Kayaking and us? Without any experience? No, problem – assured Kong. So it was Kong and Goutam in one kayak and Brijes and me in another. After some initial problems, we were all set, cruising smoothly along the the waters of the South China Sea in our kayak. We were at the level of water and everything seemed so different. Free to go anywhere we like, we went towards an isolated islet some distance away. There was an area which was surrounded by the limestone pillars and water in the center. There was a very narrow, apparently hidden entrance to this area. Once inside, we could feel the silence all around. Totally insulated from the external world, there was absolute silence. Could this be the home of Phantom, our childhood comic hero? We floated in the waters for how long we don’t know – until the silence was broken by the sudden shattering sound of a motor boat. Why did they have to discover the place and come here???
As it was getting darker, we started back on our return journey. On our way back, we saw the perfect sunset: orange kayaks all around, two big junks with bright yellow sails and the orange sun just above the water level and viewed through the sails. What could be better? And I did not have my camera to capture it as Kong had suggested that I leave my camera as it could get wet.
By this time, it was getting dark and our junk moved away from Sung Sot cave. All the junks
anchored around an area of the bay. After another delicious dinner, it was time to relax on the deck of the boat under the open sky.

Counting the stars
Night halt for a junk

Night halt for a junk

How many stars have you seen in the sky? Hundreds….thousands… I could never imagine that so many stars could be seen in the night sky – the number of stars were countless. Brijes started explaining the individual starts and constellations in the sky. The lone deck light was irritating – as it blurred the view of the stars. Everytime we switched it off, the captain of the junk came and switched it on, saying it was required by them to have the light.
After a few on-off attempts, we gave in to his request. Other bigger junks nearby had turned into party lounges with the sound of music and singing filling the air. We were on the deck till late night, enjoying the calmness and quietness of the night before retiring to bed. The sound of the generators were also contrary to the ambiance, but most of them were gradually switched off and boats started sharing among them.


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