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Mark's World Tour 2007-08

Day 160: A trip to Halong Bay

VIETNAM | Sunday, 13 April 2008 | Views [715]

Sunday 13th April

I checked out of the hotel and got to the hostel at 07.30, just on time. I grabbed a nice bacon and sausage roll at the cafe and waited in the foyer for the tour to get going. Sixteen of us boarded a minibus and we headed off in the rain towards Halong City, from where we would get our 'junk' boat out to the bay. The bay is famous for the thousands of limestone karsts that impressed UNESCO so much that they slapped its big fat World Heritage stamp on it. I wasn't that keen on it, to be honest, having seen similar seascapes in Thailand, and the weather didn't do much to heighten my enthusiasm. I was sure that it would turn out better than I thought it would – it usually does – but I was more in the mood for taking a breather for the day, having been on the go for the previous week.

We got to the boat jetty at Halong City ay 12.00 and the place was packed with many other tour groups, some people waiting to go out to the bay, with many others on their way back. The junks that take tourists out to the bay were themselves jostling for position at the pier. I got chatting to a few people in our group: Helen & Luke from Auckland, and Jason and Karl from Brisbane (although Karl was originally from Galway and had lost none of his Irish accent, fair play to him now). I had been promised that it was a good group and it looked like that was the case, and it was made all the more appealing by the two stunning Norwegian girls who were coming along with us, and who by this stage had clearly caught more than my eye.

A small boat took us out to our junk, a really nice boat that actually lived up to the boasts of our tour guide that it was one of the best on Halong Bay (compared to most of the other boats, that claim wasn't too far off the mark). In fact, it seemed like the tour company were going to provide a good service for the $69 each of us had paid; the bus ride out had been quite painless, a bit cramped for some of the taller folk, but not the worst trip either. Once on the boat, it looked very comfortable and well maintained, so we were all quite happy with it.

We gathered in the dining room to be briefed on the schedule for the day, and to exhange our passports for keys to the cabins (the captain needed to register these with the port before we could set sail). As the cabins were two person berths, I paired up with a guy called Guillaume from Lyon in France. He seemed like a really nice guy, very down to earth, and he had been helping to organise a conference in Saigon the previous week and had decided to do this trip before he flew back to France.

After a short break, we gathered again for lunch, and it seemed like Guillaume and I had the luck this time, finding a comfy seat on either side of the Norwegian ladies, Helena and Meita. The lunch consisted of different types of fish and stir-fried vegetables and it was very enjoyable to relax in the bay with some delightful company. The boat only started to move once we had finished lunch. The sky was still overcast and the skies opened up shortly after we left our mooring, so we took shelter on the deck as we took in the sights. There, I got talking to some of the other passengers, including another chap called Mark – from Manchester, who was working as a tour guide in Asia – and a Japanese guy called Sato, who was from Tokyo. Sato was able to give me a few tips on where to stay and what to see in Tokyo, and he was a really nice guy.

After an hour or so, we boarded the small boat that took us to the 'Surprising Cave' (a name which sounded to me like something out of 'Father Ted'). This wasn't just one cave, but a network of caves, two of which were absolutely massive and which were lit up with colourful filtered spotlights. The name 'Surprising Cave' was given by the French explorers who discovered this place over a hundred years ago, and who were more and more surprised at how big the caverns were the further they explored. After this, we got in pairs and headed out onto the water in kayaks, taking a trip around the lagoon. It was quite nice but the water was filthy, it had all sorts of crap in it (literally) and I even saw an unused syringe floating about on the surface. I had been dipping my hands in it and then it dawned on me just how dirty it really was when I saw the screwed up faces of everyone else. They are trying to get Halong Bay onto the list of the modern day 'Seven Wonders of the World' but the sight of this muck really annoyed me as instead of trying to maintain this environment to a high level, they were wasting their time, and that of other people, on some bullshit marketing stunt.

We got back to the main boat, had another very good meal in the quite impressive dining room, sitting in different groups of four to those at lunch. It was all very relaxed and we had a good laugh between the people at our table (the two Kiwis and Karl from Brisbane/Galway). After dinner, the booze was flowing but it didn't get too raucous. The crew had laid on karaoke for us to sing along to and were obviously keener on this than us tourists, as most of us huddled into a sheltered corner of the upstairs deck to stay out of the rain (and away from the karaoke that was taking place in the dining room below, which was quite pathetic seeing as we were paying customers!). Eventually, some of us decided to give it a go and we managed to sing a few songs (even I sang along which I thought was a great achievement considering the fact that you usually need to be hammered drunk to do karoake!). Most of the group headed off to bed around midnight, while a group of stragglers raided the cabin mini-bars for more booze to keep the party going into the small hours. At that, I bade everyone good night.


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