After leaving Hoi An we moved onto the last section of our trip, a mini cruise of Halong Bay.
It seems there are two ways to visit Halong Bay-either from Halong City, staying on the mainland and doing day trips onto the Bay, or staying on a “traditional style” Junk boat and doing a 2 or 3 day cruise. We opted for the 3 day cruise as we thought it would be the most fun. I recommend choosing the 3 day cruise because you get to actually spend a full day on the Bay, rather than 2 half days.
We ended up choosing a company called the Oriental Sails; because they offer a cruise that includes rock climbing on the Bay. Because Eric does so love to climb, this seemed like the most fun option for us. I should note we were also considering working with a company called Handspan Tours before we decided to go with the rock climbing option (Oriental Sails seems to be the only company working with this option).
Just a small note of advice for anyone traveling to Halong Bay, or Vietnam for that matter. Signing up for a pre-arranged tour is not the way I usually travel. Because of my nature and experience (and probably because I’m American), I feel that things will be better if I arrange everything myself-independently. I understand why people enjoy tours, or why it works for certain groups of people, and I’m not against them, they just aren’t typically how I end up travelling.
However, time and again on our trip through Vietnam, it became apparent that things were a lot easier for those travellers who had arranged their trips either with a tour, or through a travel agent. It sort of makes sense because Vietnam is SO different from where we come from, and things just work a lot differently in the day to day. For this reason if you are going to Vietnam, I recommend that you work with a travel agent or tour company. Eric and I did not, and we got on just fine, but it just seemed like we kept running into people who were having an easier time of things (especially arranging logistics) because they had worked everything out with a company before hand.
One example of this was our tour to Halong Bay. We worked directly with Oriental Sails to arrange and book our tour. We thought that by doing this we were getting the best deal. We were wrong. After speaking with some other folks on the tour who had arranged their trip through a travel agent, we found out that they had paid about $40 less (per person) than we paid for our trip. That’s a different of $80 for the two of us-that’s a large bit of money when you’re on a 6-month trip.
Upon further reflection, this makes sense to me in regards to my experience with hotels. Hotels will often sign agreements with third party agencies (travel agents, etc.) and guarantee them a rate for the rooms they book at their hotel. This rate is typically lower than a rate you would book by contacting the hotel yourself. They do this because it is worth it to them to guarantee a certain number of rooms a year, even if it’s at a lower rate, so make sure that they are selling their rooms every night. I assume the same thing goes for travel agents. The tour companies have most likely have worked out a special rate with travel agents as an incentive for the agents to book people on their tours-thus our comrades with the lower price!
I wouldn’t take back our trip to Vietnam, but I think I will try at least getting a quote from an agent or tour company before going somewhere that is so built on “who-knows-who” like Vietnam.
Back to the tour, we were picked up from our hotel by the Oriental Sails and joined a band of others who had likewise been fetched from their lodging. We met Jo and Carla from New Zealand, and Reed and family who live in South Carolina (but they are from all over the US). Reed and his amazing family were some of the first Americans we met in the country, and Jo and Carla became fast friends.
After a quick 3 hour drive -all the while hustling through Vietnamese traffic- out to the Bay, we were shuttled onto our boat.
After a welcome drink on board, we were given some time to freshen up before being taken to visit the “Amazing Cave”.
I was skeptical at first. Amazing Cave…reeeallly? How amazing is it? Now, admittedly, the cave was pretty neat. But the “Pretty Neat Cave” doesn’t quite roll off the tongue like the “Amazing Cave”, does it? The cave is certainly not being preserved in anyway but its size and depth are quite impressive. With three large caverns, one with a ceiling 30 metres (almost 100 feet) high!
After about 45 minutes of spelunking, we got some time for kayaking around the Bay.
Look Mom, I’m wearing my hat! Aren’t you proud?
After we kayaked around the hidden lake, and beyond, we returned back to our home on the water. Luckily, this cruise line provided quite well for a vegetarian like me! Again, on this tour I had some of the best meals that I ate in Vietnam. That were very generous with always providing an equal amount of vegetarian options for me-if they brought out fried shrimp from the rest of the table, they would bring me a small plate of faux-fried shrimp! It looked so real that I made Eric do a taste test! Ended up tasting like styrofoam but it’s the thought that counts!
The next day was our full day on the bay. We left in the morning with most of our original group to head out for rock climbing. This was our first foray into outdoor rock climbing -as opposed to indoor rock climbing at the gym.
We had a beautiful sail out to the rock climbing location, about an hour. Just for your reference, this means that we sailed for about an hour from the middle of the bay and still did not reach the end of the bay-it’s HUGE!
A company called Slo Pony took care of the rest of the day. We were able to do a bit more kayaking and swimming before taking lunch on the boat, then heading out to climb.
Then we got to the climbing! Our guides set up about 5 different routes we could take. Eric tried them all and I tried a few of them :D.
We were pretty wiped after a full day like that! We had a relaxing sail back to our boat where we met an Australian Couple who were traveling the world for 18 months (they highly enjoyed SF thank-you-very-much)! Just when you think 6 months is a long time, you meet 18 monthers! They put us to shame!
The next day was a half day where we visited a floating fishing village. It sounds neat, but seemed to be simply a photo opportunity. Oh well, we took advantage by snapping some good ones!
We enjoyed soaking in our last views of the mountainous crags as we headed back to the boat for lunch.
After we had lunch on the boat, we were carted back to the mainland and driven back to Hanoi. We enjoyed one more night in the capital and as we had a late flight out the next day, we spent the next day sightseeing with Carla and Jo. We love making new friends along the way on this trip, and they were the main reason we enjoyed our time in Hanoi. We stayed at the best hotel in Hanoi, so I’ll follow this post with a mini review of them. I’ll leave you with a snap of the shells on the beach where we climbed. So many shells and so much coral!