One of our main reasons to visit Vietnam was that we wanted to see Halong Bay. Most people choose to go on one of the excursions, which depart from Haiphong on the mainland and includes a night or two spent onboard a boat in Halong Bay. This was also our original plan, but because it was Tet, Vietnamese New Year, there were only a few excursions available for online booking, and they were all very expensive (around $300/person). On top of that, prices were based on two persons sharing a cabin, and because we were an odd number of persons traveling we would have to pay a rather hefty extra charge for single occupancy of the second cabin.
Instead we decided to spend a couple of days on Cat Ba Island and do the Halong Bay Trip from there. Cat Ba Island is the largest island in Lan Ha Bay, which is right next to Ha Long Bay, so we figured it wouldn’t be too difficult to find a boat, which could take us out in the bay.
On the day we arrived on Cat Ba Island, we walked down to the main street along the harbor and started looking for a place to book our excursion. Now if Hanoi had been a bit quiet because of Tet, then Cat Ba Island was stone dead. Only a few shops were open, and the first 3 places we asked didn’t have any Ha Long Bay excursions before the days after we had left.
We started getting a bit nervous, but then we saw a handwritten sign outside a hotel saying “Ha Long Boat Trip Tomorrow”. We went inside to purchase the tickets and remembered to check that everything was included, because some tour operators will sell tickets very cheap, and then charge you extra for everything, when you’re on the boat. Though at that time, we were so desperate that we would have booked anything, even if we had to row the boat ourselves.
The tickets were really cheap (only around $10 per person), and when we showed up for the trip the following day, we could see why. The boat looked like an old fishing boat, and even though it seemed well-maintained, my parents started giving me anxious looks. It’s no secret that the safety standards of some of the boats touring the bay can be a bit so-so.
Maybe you’ve heard about the boat accidents in Ha Long Bay a couple of years ago, when several tourists drowned in their cabins? My parents had, and they didn’t want to die. Neither did I, but I really wanted to see Ha Long Bay, so we went through the following quick assessment:
- We were only 5 passengers plus the crew on the boat that day, and from what I could see, there were life vests enough for all of us.
- There was no wind, and with all the tiny islands spread all over the bay, we would only have to swim a very short distance, should the boat be sinking.
- Besides, this was only a day trip, so we would be on the deck all the time.
In Ha Long Bay we made a 1-hour stop to go kayaking. I can’t even recall the last time I was in a kayak, so the first couple of minutes were rather chaotic with mom and I trying to steer the kayak in different directions, but after figuring out how it worked, the rest of the tour went like a breeze.
We sailed through a tunnel, which lead to a secluded lagoon surrounded by steep cliffs dressed in lush, green vegetation. It was so beautiful, and except for the French couple in the other kayak, we had it all to ourselves.
We should have enjoyed it more, while it lasted, because on our way back, two big party boats had arrived, and the birdsong, which was very prominent, when we arrived, had been replaced with Notorious B.I.G on high volume.
In a not-so-elegant way, we got out of the kayak and up on the boat again, where the crew had prepared a delicious lunch with grilled fish, soup and vegetables. For a lot of Scandinavians, it’s a bit awkward, when you have to eat family style (sharing dishes) with strangers, and especially my parents’ generation prefer their own plate with their own assigned food and their own assigned bacteria.
Because we’ve traveled so much in Asia, my parents are fine with eating family style, but they’ve developed their own take on the concept. Instead of eating directly from the shared plates, they’ll approach the food as if it were a buffet, so in the beginning of the meal, they’ll load their plates with all the food they’ve planned on eating.
It took a while before the French couple realized what was going on and that they had to start digging in, if they wanted to try anything else than the steamed rice but then they advanced and claimed the bowl with diced tofu. It was ok, they could have that, because we got most of the grilled fish:)