Our last night in Hanoi was quiet as our plans to walk to a small café somewhere were literally rained out. It poured. There was thunder and lightning. And then it did it again and again. Hence, the Sofitel Metropole bar was our destination. A nice time, but also a bit of a minor disappointment. It happens.
It is the first time in a very long time I had to do the “pack up and put your bags outside your door by 6:30 a.m.” thing. I am not loving the sort of living out of a suitcase aspect of this portion of the trip, but it is a minor inconvenience; especially since this trip is so informal. (Note: You are asked to take only an overnight bag to the junk on Halong Bay. We were fine, but a number of guests were not aware of this and were not prepared with an overnight bag of any sort.
A note would be a simple fix to what, as you will see, is actually a very convenient and logical system.)
After another wonderful breakfast it was time to get on a bus for a relatively short-in-distance drive to Halong Bay. As quickly…or not so quickly…became clear, Vietnam is a place where travel between two points (airport to city or Hanoi to Halong Bay) is measured in time. This is because of single lane “highways” of varying quality and a maximum 40 kilometer per hour speed limit. So our trip took, including a mandatory stop at a clearly government -sponsored souvenir shop,
almost 4.5 hours. It was about an hour longer than advertised because we wound up behind two very slow moving vehicles for quite a distance.
Along the way we saw a Buddist monk who is traveling throughout Vietnam seemingly touching his nose to the ground every few steps. Crowds gather honoring him as he reaches their small towns.
We finally arrived in Halong Bay. The bay is filled with thousands of limestone outcrops or islands that rise out of the sea. The bay is truly beautiful. The cloudy skies beckoned a real threat of more rain. We quickly boarded our ship, Indochina Sails IV, which – kept in perspective – is truly is a “luxury” junk. The main deck is the dining room aft and lounge forward with two decks of cabins below and a large open deck (with nice wood chairs, tables and lounges above).
One disappointment is that the Vietnamese government recently ordered all of the junks in Halong Bay to be painted white…which really was a bad idea as these beautiful culturally designed boats have lost much their exterior charm. I think some governmental official thought painting them white would make them look like yachts or mini-cruise ships and, therefore, more attractive to Western tastes. In fact, as a yachtie and a cruise person, I look around our ship – clearly the nicest around – and see white overspray everywhere as the mandate was begrudgingly complied with similar defeated compliance by the other junks as well.
As we cruised around a portion of Halong Bay, one of those dreaded groups made themselves known. I had not seen them before as we have been broken up into two smaller groups and now everyone doing the pre-cruise land portion was together. An obnoxious travel agent from Vancouver and her souvenir/junk jewelry frenzied group of ten have made themselves very well known – by being quite loud and quite rude (towards the staff, tour guides and fellow guests) because,
alas, it is all about them. (This was eventually addressed after I confronted her and she mentioned something about my mother…not a good thing to do; especially to a guy from New Jersey!)
to the top of the limestone island to a lookout. We chose to remain onboard to just enjoy the
view…and the silence (as the Canadians – as they are now known – were going
ashore; noting that not all of the Canadians our trip are boorish).
It was at this time, with the
clouds and mist forming, before an evening rain that Halong Bay became breathtaking. To me it was a “moment” and made the long
journey here worthwhile.
It also struck me, after listening to our children complain a bit about
the long bus ride, that the longer drives on this trip are a bit like going to Six Flags Great Adventure
Amusement Park. You spend a considerable
amount of time traveling and waiting for a 2 minute ride that gives you a huge
rush, and then you wait for hours again and get another rush after another 2
minute ride. At the end of the experience you
have waited more than you have been on rides, but you have had a great
day. On this trip, however, the
experiences are longer and the rush will, I am sure, last a lifetime!
But I digress. As we took in the
view, a woman in a small boat came along side trying to sell potato chips, wine,
beer and vodka. It was, in contrast, one
of those other moments when you see that tourism maybe doesn’t preserve that
which we have come to see. But alas I
have seen the same thing all over the world.
It reminded me that Halong Bay ten years ago is probably not what it is
today and that coming here now, rather than ten years from now, was a very good
yet again (or a wine tasting for $16 per person…which I skipped), it was time
for buffet dinner with a wide variety of seafood, beef and chicken items along
with various rice, noodle and vegetable offerings. After dinner the rain cleared and we sat on
the bow, anchored out, enjoying a chat and a cocktail looking at the stars and
enjoying the breeze.
The next morning I was up at 6:00 a.m. to see the early morning
Ironically, I think Halong Bay is
nicer in the mist. I decided to skip the
morning trip to some cave as I was told it can get crowded with a number of
junks visiting it at the same time…It just smelled “tourist” without there
really being any great ecological or geological interest. Between the desire to
chill (taking in the views) and not wanting to engage in a crowded venue at
7:30 a.m., discretion said to let everyone have a bit of sleep-in before our
long bus ride and then flight to Seam Reap, Cambodia later in the day.
the quiet beauty of Halong Bay, as we started to motor to port, a very nice
buffet breakfast was served. We were
requested to leave our cabins by 9:30 a.m. and to give all of our liquids to
the tour guide (who always seems so happy) since AmaWaterways stored our
luggage while we were on the junk and checked them in directly with Vietnam
Airlines. Our guide simply gives us a
bag for our liquids, puts them all together, checks them as luggage and then
distributes them at the hotel in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
has a great little system that I wish I had known about in advance because it
answered many questions I was pondering.
While on the junk we completed Cambodian visa applications and turned
them in to our guide with the $20 per person fee. They were paired up with our pre-junk
delivery of our passports to him. This resulted
in our boarding passes for our late afternoon flight to be obtained and our
luggage checked-in in advance…and after being given back our passports at the
airport just long enough to clear Passport Control…we returned them to our
guide so that he could obtain all of the Cambodian Visas immediately upon
arrival in Siem Reap without any of us waiting in line.
After disembarking at about 11:30 a.m. we headed off on our bus to the
Ha Noi Airport, stopping at a small vegetable farm and then a golf club for a
lunch. As our flight was delayed about
1.5 hours, we had plenty of time to break up the journey and, in the end, it
was actually a very easy trip; especially since our guide was so informative
When we arrived at the airport things flowed pretty much flawlessly. A two hour flight later, we claimed our
luggage (yes, it all arrived again!) and took a 20 minute ride to the Sofitel
Ankor Phokeethra Golf & Spa Resort.
Due to our late arrival it was straight to the restaurant for an
excellent buffet dinner. I had Cambodian
flat noodle soup with beef and seafood (Kuy teav?).
At dinner our liquids were delivered to us and our luggage was
delivered right to our room.
One thing is for certain: It is
the rainy season. The skies opened yet
again, as we relaxed with a cocktail after dinner on the veranda.
I know, however, that the rain (if it
happens) is not going to spoil tomorrow when we start exploring Ankor Thom and
visit the AmaWaterway’s sponsored English language school.