28/03/2013 - 30/03/2013 22 °C
One of Vietnam's must-see locations is Ha Long Bay. I think most people are familiar with imagery of the limestone karsts jutting out of the sea, most notably in the Bond film 'Man with the golden gun.' To see the bay it is almost impossible to arrange a boat privately, instead requiring visitors to face the orchestrated tour guide companies controlled by local mafia - according to my local guide.
I opted for a 2 night/3 day cruise of Ha Long Bay so I could get the full experience. Sleeping 2 nights on a boat made a nice change to hotels/guesthouses. The beds were comfy and bathroom surprisingly big. The water in the bay is very calm and combined with a slow moving boat there wasn't any chance of being seasick.
On the first day we visited an island cave and then went kayaking. The second day we went to Cat Ba island (the biggest in the bay) for a hike up a large hill followed by lunch and a few hours free time in the town. On the final day we had a short cruise back to Ha Long City.
The weather for the whole cruise was misty during the day and storms at night. Seeing the stunning islands drift in and out of the mist added a slant of mystery and wonder to the experience. I only wish that it had been sunny on one of the days as I feel like I didn't see the islands at their best.
I don't normally do guided tours and this one reminded me why. It felt very restrictive keeping to a timetable and given time limits, albeit loose, for each activity. Food was plentiful but largely tasteless with the same dishes each night. Being a captive audience on the boat, beer was overpriced and a service charge applied to drinks brought onboard. To avoid this we drank smuggled spirits in cabins, a self-defeating rule for the boat operators as atmosphere in the common room suffered. Crew members trying to flog postcards with cocktails felt like even on a private cruise I couldn't escape the hassle of the street hawkers.
Overall I really enjoyed Ha Long Bay and met some great people although as one of the world's 'top natural wonders' it fell a bit short of expectations. Maybe the circumstances of the cruise and soggy weather just prevented me from truly appreciating the landscape. Don't get me wrong, it was beautiful.....just not breathtaking.