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Excursions to Halong Bay & Sapa

VIETNAM | Thursday, 31 July 2008 | Views [1895]

I booked on to two separate trips from Hanoi- what were recommended by several people as the must-sees of Vietnam - one trip was a cruise along Halong Bay, the second trip was a trek in Sapa.

Halong Bay Cruise

Halong Bay is in northeastern Vietnam. One of the most famous sights in Vietnam, the bay contains some 2,000 limestone obelisks which rise spectacularly out of the ocean waters. Local legend says that long ago when the Vietnamese were fighting Chinese invaders, the gods sent a family of dragons to help defend the land. This family of dragons began spitting out jewels and jade. These jewels turned into the islands and islets dotting the bay, linking together to form a great wall against the invaders.

Most tourists visit Halong Bay on a two- or three-night cruise. I had heard quite a few nightmare stories of the poor quality of the junks which some tour operators used, and infestation problems on those junks. Well, I didn't like the idea of trapping myself on a boat with infestation problems before I knew what I was getting into. So I opted to sign myself on to one of the pricier cruise trips - a three-day trip to Halong Bay, including kayaking and an overnight stay in a resort on Cat Ba island.

We travelled by bus from Hanoi to the pier, where hundreds (or what seemed like hundreds) of tourists were milling around with their backpacks waiting to board their tour operators' boats. Shoving our way through, we hopped on to a transit boat, that took us to our junk.

The other people on the boat were either on the two-day or three-day cruise. About 15 people in total - a nice enough number to get to know most of the people.

As we departed from the pier, we were served a nice lunch and we got know each other. From there, we visited Sung Sot (Amazing) Cave, where our tour guide showed us all sorts of stalagmite and stalactite formations out of the rock. Honestly, I wasn't convinced by a lot of them - they are just rocks after all, regardless of how much one wants to see different shapes and animals in them. I guess I just have no imagination.

Back on the boat, we had an opportunity to chill. While I was lounging on the upper deck, I started speaking to a recently-engaged New Zealand couple - Kara and John. I got to know them better when we visited a small island with a pagoda at the top of the hill. I have not gotten along better with anyone so far on this trip as I did with those two. Conversation was absolutely effortless. It was a shame that they were only doing the two-day trip, as they were good company.

Back aboard ship, we were met with an exquisite lunch - I had not expected anything so extravagant. Lobsters, shellfish, langoustines, prawns, various salt-water fishes. All sorts of seafood were presented in front of us. Every one of us was well and truly stuffed by the end.

Kara, John, a Dutch guy who I was sharing a room with, and myself, played cards on the upper deck into the early morning, while the rest of the ship dozed off to sleep.

Next day the group parted ways. Half of the group went back to the pier - their tour was over. The rest of us changed boat, and went to another part of Halong Bay (away from the many other junks) to go kayaking. And ooufff, was it exhausting. Over 3 hours of kayaking, we couldn't take any more. Our bodies were aching. But it was great fun. And there's nothing like the aching feeling of a much-needed physical workout.

On to Cat Ba island, one of the largest islands in Halong Bay with a permanent population - although nowadays it has become yet another resort island. It has a beautiful beach, although I spent most of my time in my room, relaxing and washing my clothes.

Sapa Trek

An hours after arriving back in Hanoi from the Halong Bay Cruise, I was to leave for Sapa in northwest Vietnam by overnight train. Fortunately, there was some continuity between the two trips, as one of the families on the Halong Bay Trip was also doing the Sapa Trek.

The mother in the family, conscious of me being a solo traveller amongst a family, made a particular effort to welcome me and treat me as one of the family, which was lovely. They were well-off Californians - a mother and father in their 60's and two sons in the late 20's and early 30's respectively.

The Sapa Trek was to last for 2 nights/3 days. Certainly, an experience that I will never forget.

The trek started off in the morning by road, but by afternoon we were on rocky dirt trails and wading through rivers. The views were, actually, very similar to the Central Highlands. A lot of green, but with more rivers flowing through the valleys than were noticeable in the Highlands.

It was very early on though that my camera inexplicably stopped working. So I have no photos of the Sapa trek, apart from the first few which I managed to snap.

Our first night was spent in a very very basic home. I have done a few homestays so far on my travels, but never have any of them actually been or felt like an authentic family home. This was. No electricity, one light-bulb for the house, nursery-type chairs around one small table, thin mattreses, no privacy. This was a proper Vietnamese home.

The centre of attention in this particular home was the 10 year-old girl. Unlike her family, this girl was not shy at all to interact with us. She was eager to learn new English words, to read our English books, learn English songs, and play games. She was also quite the bully, taking any opportunity to hit (in a playful way) one of us guys. She was friendliest with David, the 28-year old son who was a primary school teacher in Korea.

The family quietly joined us for a simple dinner in the communal room around a small table. David managed to change the group dynamic by teaching us some of the Korean drinking games that he had learnt. By the end of the evening, we had gone through 20-odd bottles of beer and 4 bottles of rice wine.

The next day's trek was an effort after the night before. All the more so because the heavens had decided to open. It was pouring down, and many of the tracks which would have been dry before had turned into slippery rocky riverines.

I thought it would be a blessing having waterproof shoes. But I was so wrong. Because once water gets into water-proof shoes, it is damn hard to get out again!

Two incidents in particular are worth mentioning. The heavy rainfall had flooded many parts of Sapa, and the rivers had burst their banks. As a result, we had to take a few detours on to safer tracks. But at one point, our tour guide decided to keep going on our intended route (which was across a river). On an ordinary day, a flimsy bamboo bridge would have been enough to get us from one side to the other. But not today. The river had burst its banks and the bridge was now essentially in the middle of a very violent river.

Following a signal from our guide, Dave forged ahead. Jeff, the other son next. Then me. I treaded carefully, trying to search the river bed for a foothold against the strong currents. Being swept away would not have been good news. The bridge keeper was standing on the bridge, trying to reach for my arm to pull me across. I inched my way closer, close to losing balance on more than a few occasions, as the waters were slamming into my thighs. I must confess to being tempted at one point to shove the bridge keeper out of the way so that I could take the rock which he was comfortably standing on.

I made it across. Then the mother. Then the father. But only 5 minutes after the father had stepped off the bridge, the bridge washed away completely.

So close! If we had been on that bridge at the time, I am sure none of us would have survived. Well, another near-death experience under my belt.

The next near-death experience was on that same day, but not so much an experience as a fact which later came to our attention. On our way down to the village where we would be spending the night, we had to trek for 1.5 hours along a road which was winding in a snake-like way down the face of a mountain. An hour after we had reached the homestay, we learned that a landslide at the top of the mountain, had covered the road at several segments along the way down. No one was killed. But it was scary that it had not been long before we had been on that very same road. We should have been more conscious of the danger of landslides during the torrential rains - we had managed to avert some small landslides, which would have caused minor injury at most, but it never occurred to us that there might be a large landslide. I suppose even if we had thought about it, there was not much that we could do but keep moving ahead.

The second night was like the first - full of the same drinking games. I think my failure to drink enough water on this day made the effects of the rice wine more potent.

Our final day involved visiting an unimpressive waterfall, before treking back up to the main road (the landslide made it impossible for the minibus to collect us from the homestay).

Not the junk which I was on obviously. But my one did look similar.

Not the junk which I was on obviously. But my one did look similar.

Tags: cruise, haong bay, kayaking, sapa, trek


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