A Bus Ride to Ha Long Bay

Wednesday 24-12-2014. Day 126.

Three Days on Ha long Bay. Part One.

We spent three days floating around Ha Long bay on a junk with Sam's childhood friend and her family. It's an adventure we like to call ...

Ha Long We Gonna Be On This Boat?

But before we could get on the boat, we had to take a four-hour bus ride from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay. We've done some long trips on this adventure, so four hours on a bus wasn't really a concern—at least not until the bus started to leave from our hotel with our luggage (but without us). A simple oversight, perhaps, but it did not inspire confidence.

We were four of the 17 people on the bus, 15 of whom would be spending three days and two nights together on the boat. We all, at the behest of our guide Peter, introduced ourselves then enjoyed some good conversations about travel and destinations with some of our fellow bus riders.

Halfway through the bus ride, we stopped for a restroom break and the obligatory selling opportunity at an arts outpost that employed and sold the works created by disabled people. Allegedly. We didn't see any of the disabled artisans, and no photographs were allowed, but there was a lot of stuff for sale—carved stone statues and wooden furniture and all manner of clothing and jewelry. We walked through the whole complex to the other side, buying a pack Ritz crackers and some M&Ms along the way, before we got back on our bus and resumed the ride to the bay.

Eventually, we arrived at the dock in Ha Long Bay, met up with Jenji and her family, and got onto a small boat we would take us to a larger boat, the Garden Bay 1, our home for the next three days.

Small boat to a bigger boat.

Small boat to a bigger boat.

A Boat Ride to a Boat

Let's be honest. After four months of traveling as a group, we're used to moving our own luggage around. We prefer it, actually. So I was a little reluctant to let the porter take our bags from us to load them onto the boat. Sure, maybe we were being a bit paranoid, but when we saw our bags teetering precariously on the edge of the ferry as we puttered across the bay, it didn't ease our worries. In all fairness, our bags did not end up in the waters of Ha Long Bay. However, we did witness one bag that inadvertently went for a swim, so it does happen.

Those are our bags, hanging over the edge of the boat.

Those are our bags, hanging over the edge of the boat.

A few minutes into our ride across the bay, Peter pointed out our junk, just one of the many medium-sized vessels bobbing in the boat-choked waters.

Junk is a funny word.  Although it doesn't refer to the boat's condition (it's an anglicized word from the Portugese junco), I couldn't help but think as we pulled up alongside the boat we'd be living on for three days, "You came in that? You're braver than I thought!"

But we weren't aboard yet. First the gent piloting the small shuttle boat had to dock with the Garden Bay 1. And this took some time. As painfully long time. And our luggage threatened to tumble into the depths of the bay with every turn of the ship's wheel.

After numerous attempts it became obvious that the pilot of the boat was a second-stringer. Or maybe a third-stringer. I glanced over at Gary, a retired Australian Navy man we'd talked to on the bus ride. It looked like he was ready to take over the helm. I, for one, was hoping he would.

But inexperience eventually gave way to persistence, and we docked. Everyone of us quickly moved onto the Garden Bay 1 and headed up the steps where we were given the keys to our assigned cabins and got the rundown on the rest of the day's events. Then we were given our leave to check out our cabins for a few minutes before the cruise would officially begin.

Not too bad for a boat.

Not too bad for a boat.

We made our way down to our cabins to check them out. They were pretty nice, but interestingly didn't have any bags in them. So we asked about the status of our luggage.

"Don't worry," we were told, "your bags will be coming over on another boat very soon."

"No," we said, "they were on the boat with us."

"More bags are coming," they said. "They'll be delivered soon."

As it turns out, our bags were already on the boat, but they had been placed in a room assigned to someone else. So after we played a round of luggage-hide-and-seek, we were finally ready to embark on this cruise.

Casting Off

And so it was Now that all 20 passengers (with all the luggage in all the right rooms) were on the Garden Bay 1, we started heading out into Ha Long Bay for a three-day, two-night adventure.

The islands of Ha Long Bay.

The islands of Ha Long Bay.

Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it's mighty beautiful. The weather when we were there was on the cooler side and the sky remained overcast for the entirety of the trip (it even rained a few times), but the scenery was still pretty spectacular.

Floating island.

Floating island.

It can also be dangerous. In recent years, there have been reports of boats colliding and sinking on the bay. In one incident, a nighttime collision between two boats resulted in the  death of five Taiwanese tourists. And I can believe it. Standing on the top deck and looking out over the water, the bay was jam-packed with all manner of tourist boats. I had a bad feeling about this.

A lot of boats.

A lot of boats.

Fishing Floating Village Tour

This was an activity-packed tour, and our first activity after getting settled in was visiting the Vung Vieng Fishing Floating Village. We were offered the choice between a kayak or a "rowing boat." Frankie was keen to try the kayak, but at some point that option vanished and we all got rowing boats. And by rowing boats, it's someone else who's rowing them, which was probably a good thing because there was a lot of rowing.

A "rowing boat."

A "rowing boat."

We all got back onto the smaller boat (which I'm going to call the shuttle boat from here on in) and rode past a pearl farm to a dock system loaded with kayaks. This was the launching point to the Fishing Village. Each group of us were assigned to a boat that, after we were loaded aboard, was rowed through the area by one of the local fishermen.

And we're off ... rowing boats take to the village.

And we're off ... rowing boats take to the village.

We went by a lot of floating houses, but there weren't many people around. Peter explained to use before we left that many of the fishermen were out fishing this time of day. We docked at the village and we all got out for a short tour of the place. It was pretty small.

Floating fishing village.

Floating fishing village.

There were a few homes here, and there was a building where the children went to school (but maybe not on Wednesdays). But mostly it felt like villagers on parade. Despite a quick tour of the the daily living show room, where we saw a small display of traditional fishing gear, I didn't get a good sense of the day-to-day life of a Vietnamese fishing family.

After our very brief stop was over, it was back into our rowing boats and a quick visit to Vong Cave, a natural archway a short distance from the village, which was one of the more interesting parts of the trip. Then it was back to the Garden Bay 1.

Vong Cave, the Gate to Vung Vien.

Vong Cave, the Gate to Vung Vien.

When we returned, we were given a little time to freshen up, then it was up to the top deck for a class in how to make Vietnamese spring rolls. After the spring rolls were cooked and served, the crew threw us all a Christmas party (with champagne!), which was pretty nice—although it felt a little strange. And just about as fast as it had started, the party was over when we were called down to the dining room for dinner.

During dinner, Peter had a few announcements, mostly about the events that were planned for the next day. It was going to be busy with a lot of different activities, so to pack them all in breakfast would be served at 7:30 a.m. We all thought that seemed a little early for a relaxing cruise.

One of the after dinner activities offered to us was night squid fishing. Jackie was very excited about it, but Peter set expectations, telling us it was meant "for entertainment purposes only."

Let me tell you how entertaining squid fishing is for an eight-year-old when she's told she's  not going to catch any squid—not entertaining at all. Although she did come real close to catching a Styrofoam container.

Night time, Ha Long Bay.

Night time, Ha Long Bay.

Right before bed, I went up to the top deck to get a view of Ha Long Bay at night. It was very serene and pretty beautiful. But some of the boats were pretty close to each other, and I couldn't help thinking about the tourists who died in their sleep.

As I turned out the lights in my room, I hoped I'd make it through the night.

Notable Statistics:

  • UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 1 (16 cumulative)
  • Squids caught during fishing: 0
  • Spring rolls made: 4
  • Fishing Villages visited: 1

is a writer of things with a strong adventurous streak. He also drinks coffee.

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A Bus Ride to Ha Long Bay
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