Today we woke up in the Elite Hotel in Hanoi. We had breakfast and headed around the corner to the Hanspan office to catch our bus to Halong Bay. I arranged this back in England after seeing the tour company was highly recommended with various tour guides and travel books. Unlike most of the tours to Halong Bay, this one missed out the main part of the bay (that can see up to three hundred other boats anchored each night and is noisy and commercial) and went further south and anchored alone in a quiet bay.
We set off on the 140km drive to the bay at 8am. Shortly after getting onto the main road out of the city we were making our way along the road narrowly avoiding other vehicles and mopeds again. I was holding my breath the whole time and gasping at the amount of close shaves we were having! Then just like last year going from Ceuta to Meknes, over the Moroccan border, the same thing happened again - we were struck by another vehicle! This time it was in the middle of our guide explaining that thirty people die on these roads each day - it was like it was timed. He got a little distracted momentarily before proceeding with the story. Meanwhile, the other passengers were a little more in shock - so a fellow passenger tried to ease the distress by asking how these things are resolved over in Vietnam. It turns out the two drivers have a heated discussion then the one who wins gets cash and carries on!
We were off again in a matter of seconds on the road to the Bay (I guess we won!) Although the bay is only 130km away it took well over three hours to arrive passing fields upon fields of rice paddies and lotus flowers. Also, I feel quite large here, i'm just over five foot and about 60kg and tower over most of the locals in which the busses are designer for. I just about travelled comfortably as long as I didn't move too much but the other passengers that were taller or wider than me found it a bit of an uncomfortable journey! Jamie dreads the ride back!
Having grown up on a farm, one thing I noticed again passing through the agricultural land was the machinery or rather lack of it in most cases. Most of the fields were being cultivated and harvested by hand and mostly by women too. Our guide told us that most of the men go to the city for work leaving the women and children to work the land at home as their salary is only between one and two dollars a day. Sometimes you did see the odd water buffalo helping out with ploughing and in even rarer cases a tractor. These tractors Jamie pointed out were Kubota's and instead of wheels at the back they had a wide paddle like on the old steam ships.
We continued on the road and passed the train that goes to the Bay.
We thought the bus took a long time but apparently the train takes seven to eight hours and is full of livestock and food. There are plans in place to re-develop this track so that tourists will be able to take the train to the Bay from Hanoi in the near future.
We arrived at the bay at midday and were taken to our boat 'The Treasure Junk' where we were to spend the night. We were very warmly welcomed aboard and showed to our room which was small but very comfortable, modern and clean with beautiful views out to the islands. We were then taken upstairs to the restaurant for lunch. The food was amazing and there was lots of it. I initially read the menu and was struggling to make a choice ok the appetising menu. However, this wasn't a problem - I didn't have to make a choice as we were given everything - all seven courses! We started with hot and sour soup with shrimp followed by Chinese style salad, then came king prawns in chilli, then followed by spring rolls and dipping sauce and finally seasonal fruits. Our appetites were truly satisfied!
After lunch we were given some information about Halong Bay from our guide including that there are over 19,000 individual islands within the bay spanning over thousands of square kilometres. There are also twenty seven sea villages that people live on for months at a time instead of having to make the four hour trip out to the bay and back each day to fish. After this we were taken out in Kayaks to explore the bay visiting some caves in the limestone rock formations and finally to a beach for a swim. It was tiring work in 35 degree heat but worth it to take in the spectacular views of the bay more close up. We swam at the secluded beach in water that must have been at least twenty eight degrees, it was as warm, as a bath!
After a few hours we returned to the Treasure Junk freshened up and had another amazing six course dinner with a much deserved beer and glass of wine. There were then the options to stay up and watch a film and go squid fishing but by nine o'clock tiredness had overcome us and we were asleep as soon as we hit the pillow!
Our alarm woke us at six in the morning and we went up on deck for a light breakfast of pastries and tea. After breakfast a couple of girls who were also staying on board alerted a couple of members of the crew to a snake that was downstairs. After hearing a few girly screams and a thump they came back upstairs. We shortly found out after that it was a male member of crew that cried the screams and apparently it was a small but very poisonous snake! We had been at sea all night so it must have spent the night with us. I'm just glad I didn't discover it - I'm not a fan of snakes especially the poisonous variety.
After the commotion we then boarded the tender boat and were taken to one of the floating villages nearby. We disembarked at what must have been their version of a village hall then groups of four boarded individual rowing boats provided by locals to tour the village. We were taken around the village and shown the school that was recently set up for children who no longer have regular access to the land and their usual education establishments. These children now study at the floating primary or secondary school that has permanent teachers.
After touring the village we were taken to another large floating building where hybrid pearls are produced. We were explained the whole process and shown all the different pearl jewellery and souvenirs that they make.
We then returned to the boat for brunch as we headed back to the mainland and our dreaded bus trip back to Hanoi. Halong Bay has been an amazing experience and I would definitely recommend the Hanspan tour on the Treasure Junk to anyone.