Feb 22,23 Halong Bay
As I start this note I am sitting with a bottle of wine looking out at the cliffs of one of the 2000 Karst pinnacles sticking out of the South China Sea in the UNESCO World Heritage site called Halong Bay. I am at a table in the dining room of my Cruise boat. It is comfortably warm while outside it is quite cold and damp as it has been a bit drizzly the whole day. My wine, the first of this trip, is a Chilean Sauvignon that tastes very nice to my uneducated palate. In the normal scheme of things my first wine here would have been from Dalat but I never got around to trying wine here yet and on this boat they probably would never offer something like that unless it was pretty good.
I am on the second day of my three day – two night Halong Bay tour with Swan Cruises. The tour began at about 8:30 in Hanoi when I was picked up from my hotel joining 13 others for the four hour bus ride to Halong Bay. Our guide Trang (Linda for the westerners in the bunch) did a good job of creating a community feeling among us by telling stories, often humorous. We were ferried out to our cruise boat for a welcome drink and snack. A few minutes in my assigned room confirmed that this would be the extravagant experience that I do not give myself very often. Meanwhile the boat was cruising through the incredible Karst Pinnacles. The grey day did not detract much from the magnificence of these rugged formations. Grey rocks heavily streaked with black water stains, all seemingly lashed together with green vines and bushes that must grow out of every available crack.
A five course lunch ensued where I sat with the other two single males; Stephen (35) from Australia and Stefano (29) from Italy. Our other companions were from the US, Australia and Israel. Soon after lunch the program had us heading out for a kayak trip. I was paired with Stefano who was a bit wild for this water-challenged invalid although not as wild and the young male/female cousins from Israel who zig-zagged in gay abandon the whole time out. Our ride took about 2 ½ hours and included a beach stop where we did a little beach combing and swimming for those so inclined. After settling Stefano down some and realizing we were not going to capsize I began to enjoy the privilege of gliding along at water level in this very special place.
A hot shower and an hour of listening to my music on my new Bluetooth speaker looking out from my room to the ever startling visual feast was followed by an 11 course dinner feast. As much as I have enjoyed the food on my solo meander through Vietnam you cannot really appreciate the breath and quality of the food until you are included in a larger group experience. My only other such experience was in Van Gia thanks to Dam and his family who included me in their family celebrations.
In the morning Trang led us in Tai Chi before our breakfast buffet. Our first excursion took us to a pretty nice cave. These mountains, if I can call them that, must be laced with caves. I left the group I came in with at that point as they are all on a one night trip. I will join another group coming in later in the day for my second night.
My new guide Luong (Linda), took me out for the rest of the day. We toured a traditional fishing area, run now almost at a heritage village and we had a pearl farming demonstration and the opportunity to buy some nice pearls. We had one more kayak trip, just the two of us, but it didn’t last as long as it was starting to drizzle somewhat.
After my nice afternoon in the big boat; drinking wine, listening to music and writing, my new travel mates came in from their kayak trip and we had a second evening with another fine meal. In the morning of my final day, while steaming back to the harbour we had a cooking lesson and then a final five course meal before disembarking for the four hour bus ride back to Hanoi.
I enjoyed the whole thing more than I expected. Yes there are no end of boats and people out among the Karst Mountains, but they are so extensive that you are usually alone and the peacefulness is significant. You must be protected from the wind and waves from the open sea. It is the magnitude of these formations that probably most hit me. They seem to be almost infinite in scope. The high-end service and friendly people of the cruise company (Swan) that I was with also made a difference. In particular my two lovely young guides seemed so genuinely interested in every one and provided a nice insight into the experience. I was close to not coming here, but am glad that I did.
After yet another cool day in Hanoi I am off to the northern mountains where it is cold.