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Asia Trip 2011: Day 4 – Halong Bay

Having done some exhaustive research the last few days, I decided that I wanted to splurge on my trip to Halong Bay. It would be a once in a lifetime deal, and if they made it to the New 7 Wonders of the World, the prices would surely inflate even more. We settled with the Galaxy Cruise at a price of $111 USD per person. It wasn’t our first choice, but since the boat was brand new (on the water since March 2011), we felt it was a good bargain.

We checked out of our hotel early that morning, and the payment process was relatively painless. We learned then and there that a 3% charge applies to all credit card transactions, but since we didn’t have enough cash to cover our entire bill (the three nights plus tour bookings plus train ticket to Hue), we had to shrug our shoulders on this one. The tour guide came to get us and 8am and seemed to be extremely rushed – I didn’t have time to use the washroom before I left the hotel. I mentioned to him that I would like to go before we set off, and he kept saying “20 minutes”. Finally, after an hour and a half of him saying “20 minutes” (and from the original estimate we should’ve been at the rest station by then), I told him I had to go. He didn’t seem very pleased, but asked the driver to pull over for me to use a WC. We ended up in a gas station. With the most vile toilet I’ve ever seen.

So I’m not complaining about the tour company and all, since I know they can’t control the state of washrooms outside of their specific rest areas, but seriously. This was terrible. If you’re eating, you should probably read this later. Basically, I went to the washroom assuming it’d be some squat hole, but it turned out to be an actual toilet. It smelled terrible, but that’s the norm. The warning bell rang when I looked to my right and saw a pile of crap that someone had just left there, on the ground. Right next to a toilet. Of course, curiousity got the better of me and I decided to look into the toilet, that apparently hadn’t seen running water in a long time, to find it completely infested with maggots. Most. Disgusting. Thing. Ever.

Anyways.

I ran out of there as soon as I could, and lo and behold the rest station was 20 minutes away. With proper clean toilets, with running water. It was like paradise. I wish I had brought my wallet in with me, because there was a fruit stand in there, and their produce looked delicious. They had baby pineapples (peeled and cut up) for 20,000 dong! I made a mental note to bring my wallet on the way back the next day so I could buy one.

We finally made it to Halong Bay by 12:30pm, and had to do some waiting around while the company shifted people from the previous cruise off the ship. It’s interesting how they keep everything moving, and you don’t understand what’s happening until you’ve gone through the entire process. Basically, they have people on the ship from the previous cruise waiting until the van arrives. Only then do they let those passengers off the cruise via a smaller motorboat and they swap places with the people on the van.

The boat party consisted of an Irish / Thai couple, a married couple from Indonesia, a young and old couple from Germany (who don’t know each other), two backpackers from somewhere in Europe (I didn’t get a chance to chat with them), and an Australian couple. It was small, and it was comfortable. It seemed a bit disorganized at first, with the waiting around, but once we got on the boat and got introduced to everyone, things started to settle down a bit. The food they served was okay. I read a lot of reviews from travellers saying that cruise ships in Halong Bay serve fantastic food, with great portions. But I didn’t really notice that. The food was good, I liked the variety and presentation, but we finished everything they served, and I’m sure A could’ve eaten more. We spent our lunch with the couple from Thai, and had a great time learning about their jobs as teachers there.

A and I had a lovely room on the lower deck. The roof deck had lounge chairs for sunbathing, and the middle deck had an open sitting area by the front. Overall, the boat is in great shape. Our two tour guides were very nice, and chatted with us a lot. After taking a small break to chill, we took the smaller boat out to the Surprising Cave. It’s basically comprised of three caves, with a lot of random rock formations. It’s beautiful inside, though some of it is artificially lit with colourful lights, ruining the atmosphere a bit. The views from the cave opening are splendid though. After exploring the cave, we got the chance to go kayaking around the area. The tour guide told us we had until 4:50 to kayak (it was 4:10 at that time), so we went off exploring as soon as we got into our boat. Apparently, right after we left, they changed their minds and told everyone to be back by by 4:30. Soooo A and I were kayaking around until well after it had gotten dark, making the most of our time on the kayak (that we were terrible with, it constantly veered left, and it was such effort to make it turn right). When we got back to the docks at 4:50, completely pitch dark, we found that everyone was already sitting in the travel boat waiting for us. They all thought we had gotten lost, and they seemed a bit grumpy. Whoops.

There was an option to swim when we got back to our boat, but it was completely dark outside and the water didn’t seem very warm, so no one took the option. I wonder if anyone on any boat would take the option to swim in such dark conditions. I also didn’t feel like the water was very clean… but maybe that’s just me. Instead, when we got back to our boat we took a break and settled down for dinner. This time around, we sat with with the couple from Indonesia, who were both vegetarians. I felt bad for them, since their food options were extremely limited. Most of the time they got tofu in supplement for our amazing display of pork or beef. Even they seemed really unimpressed. We also noticed a new couple that had joined us at the next table over. They had just come back from a two-day kayaking tour and were headed back to land with us. After dinner, we chatted with them and found out they were from Calgary! We ended up hanging out the rest of the time on the boat the next day.

The entertainment post-dinner was either karaoke or squid-fishing. While squid-fishing sounded really appealing, Jeff and Kathy (the Calgary couple) found from the tour guides that it was well past squid season, and the chances of us catching anything are next to nothing. But it seemed like karaoke was a pretty poor alternative, as the room quickly cleared out and the only people who were singing was the tour guide (a VERY bad rendition of Hello by Lionel Ritchie), and the bartender. We tried fishing regardless, but I was feeling pretty tired and congested, so I went to bed early out of fear I had caught a cold.

All rooms had A/C, which is great because every boat in the harbour left their engines on, and the air outside reeked of engine fumes. The beds were extremely comfortable, and the outlets accepted North American plugs, so we could charge all out stuff while we slept.