At 630am, the phone in our hotel room rang. As a last minute request the night before, the front desk staff was able to get us two seats on a one day tour to Ha Long Bay. We were told to be downstairs in the lobby by 7:30am. After quickly tossing our belongings in our packs, we ran down to check out and grab a quick breakfast of Vietnamese sticky rice, roasted tomato, and fresh yogurt. By 8 o’clock, a car, sent by the tour company, Vietnam Open Tours, had arrived to bring us to meet the tour bus in the Old Quarter.
We were dropped off in an alley way and became slightly skeptical about the whole thing. We walked up and down and couldn’t figure out where we were suppose to go. Finally we found the storefront and when we walked in, we were greeted by name. They were expecting us, as we had paid for the tour at the hotel in advance. We were told the bus would be arriving in approximately 10 minutes. As we were waiting, it began to drizzle. The weather forecast called for a mostly cloudy day with scattered showers ending by noon.
When the bus arrived, we were pleasantly surprised. It appeared to be relatively new compared to many of the other tour busses we saw throughout the day. We were the first to board the bus, which sat 32 passengers. After stopping at several hotels, the bus was packed to capacity. Thank you to The Hanoi Club reception, were truly lucky to have gotten seats on this tour!
As we departed Hanoi for Ha Long Bay, for a three and a half hour drive, the sky’s opened up and it began to pour. It poured and poured for the entire drive to Ha Long Bay. Water poured off the roofs of the buildings we drove by, filling the streets below. But all this rain didn’t cause the locals on their motorbikes to bat an eye. They drove through deep puddles at high speeds without hesitation. It was quite a site to see!
At about the halfway point of the drive, we stopped “to use the bathroom” and were instructed to get off the bus and walk through the gift shop to meet the bus on the other side. This gift shop was not filled with the typical trinkets you would expect to find in a gift shop on the side of the road. Don’t get me wrong, the trinkets were there, but this gift shop seemed to specialize in art. There were sections of beautiful embroidery art, painted tiles, stone sculptures, and jewelry. Towards the front of the store, Vietnamese women sat in rows focused on their needle work.
Back on the road, the rain continued until we arrived at the boats on Ha Long Bay. Then the lightening began! About five months ago, the pier for the tour boat was moved from Ha Long City and small buildings were built by the new pier for the tour boat operator. We waited inside for about a half hour before the rain let up and lightening stopped. We were then brought to the boat by a tender and our journey began.
We began our voyage sitting inside to have lunch. Vietnamese papaya salad, seafood soup, fish cakes, squid, pork, and steamed rice were brought to the table. We were pleasantly surprised with the cuisine served on board.
Lunch came to an end just as we began nearing the towering limestone islands covered in rain forest that make Ha Long Bay famous. Not only is Ha Long Bay a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but in 2012 was officially recognized as one of the new seven wonders of the natural world by the New 7 Wonders Foundation. It’s name, Ha Long Bay, as we learned from our tour guide Ngoc, means Descending Dragon Bay. Our tour guide was great! He made sure everyone had their phones with them and then asked if someone could call heaven to make the sun come out. He was always giving us information and making sure we were happy.
Our first stop of the day allowed for the option of kayaking or a ride in a bamboo boat rowed by a local. As the kayaking was included in our tour package, and the bamboo boat ride cost 160,000 vnd, we opted for the kayaking. Of course, as we approached the floating dock for kayaking, the sky opened up again. But since you only live once, and we’ve kayaked in even heavier rain in the Adirondacks, we decided to brave the wet weather and experience kayaking on Ha Long Bay.
We kayaked for about a half hour in tandem kayaks that clearly showed signs of heavy use. Some were even missing a piece of their bow! We paddled through a cave into an area surrounded by steep walls and dense forest. We went back through the cave, through another cave and then back to the docks to get back to the boat. The locals got a kick out of the fact that at one point I was paddling alone while Jess was taking pictures! Within minutes of getting back on the boat after kayaking, the rain stopped. Shout out to our friends from Texas, Japan and Sweden who joined us on this crazy adventure!!!
After kayaking, our next stop was to see a cave that was accidentally discovered in 1993, Dong Thien Cung (Heaven Cave). While the sights inside the cave were beautiful, we both found it to be very commercialized, as stairs had been built to improve ease of access to the cave. In addition, steps and a concrete walk way had been built inside the cave. For two people who love hiking and strictly follow “leave no trace” ideals, this was a very disappointing sight. However, during our walk through the cave, our tour guide Ngoc pointed out all the different images in the stalactites and stalagmites, including several dragons and a man and woman. As we exited the cave, we were shocked to see that the sun had come out.
Next, we got back on the boat and headed back to the pier where we boarded a different, albeit just as nice, bus to head back for Hanoi. Again, we stopped half way at a gift shop filled with knock-off north face jackets, Nike sneakers, and adidas sneakers along with the same art, jewelry and trinkets as before. They had the largest sticks of cinnamon I have ever seen as well! Back on the bus, we both fell asleep until we arrived back in the old quarters at 9:35pm. We were told we would be back by 8 O’clock, so if your planning a day trip to Ha Long Bay don’t make any travel plans for after!
We definitely recommend using Vietnam Open Tours for your trip! Tomorrow we are excited to meet up with some new friends and explore Hanoi City.
Follow Your Tummy…
-Jess and Steven
April 22, 2016