I think if you plan on going to Vietnam then you've probably heard of Ha Long Bay as a place to visit, if you don't plan on going then you may have seen photos of it and not realised what it's called. We were somewhere in the middle – we wanted to visit, we'd seen photos but we knew how blooming expensive it could be. We also had conflicting advice – one friend told us to not bother with a cruise and another friend insisted it was the best thing they'd done on their trip in Vietnam. Based on my travelling ethos being "it's the things that you don't do which you regret" we booked ourselves on to a cruise. Originally we tried to book a Ha Long Bay cruise, but the operator suggested we book on to the Lan Ha Legend cruise which stays in the quieter Lan Ha Bay and involves more kayaking and cycling which the other didn't. With a husband that loves kayaking and cycling I decided to take their advice and book.
At 8am we got picked up by a minivan that had 4 guys already inside, we got in and I hoped that we would be picking up more guests on our way as I didn't expect or want to be on a boys trip. Turns out that we were the last ones to be picked up and we were on our way to Ha Long harbour to catch a speedboat to our cruise boat. The minivan journey took just over four hours, with a half hour stop in the middle. We stopped at a large warehouse which had disabled people creating crafts, mainly embroideries and stone carvings, that they were hoping to sell. The embroideries were absolutely stunning and something I could only wish to be able to create myself. Unfortunately as carry on only travellers we were unable to buy and instead got our obligatory KitKat chunky snacks.
When we eventually got to the harbour we waited for our speedboat, we saw plenty come and go that looked incredibly new and we got excited for our journey… then our speedboat turned up. My excitement levels dropped immensely as I realised it looked no better than a tin boat. Despite my fears we got on anyway and soon had the wind rushing through our hair and we were speeding through limestone structures towering above the water – it was pretty cool if you forgot about the lack of lifejackets and the state of the boat. It was on the speedboat that everyone introduced themselves and all of a sudden I was okay being the only girl as the others didn't seem too 'lad–ish'.
Once on the cruise boat we all settled down for lunch and met our tour guide Vu, who proceeded to slag off Southern English people (us) and to tell the Aussie guy in our group that he was ancient at 35 compared to the rest of us (early to mid twenties). All of us looked at each other, communicating through stares and raised eyebrows "Who is this guy?! Have we got to put up with his weird humour the whole time?". (It turned out he was harmless and great fun in card games.)
Then lunch came out. It was amazing. We'd previously told the cruise operator we were vegetarian (mainly to avoid having to eat the seafood) they didn't really understand but could understand 'NO seafood', so we ended up eating chicken and pork anyway (at least it wasn't seafood!). On our trip so far around South East Asia I don't think we've had food so good or plentiful. We all did our best to gulf down the food but there was still enough left for the staff to have a full lunch.
After lunch we were shown our relatively old but perfectly fine room and then spent time on the top deck chatting to the others whilst soaking in the beautiful views whilst our boat made its way to a spot popular for kayaking. We didn't expect much from the kayaking, particularly as Josh's family have a kayaking background and we'd been on an Alps trip which involved watersports earlier in our travels.
But my oh my… It was incredible. Yes the boat numbed our bums, yes we got wet, no the life jacket we were given didn't do up so would be pretty useless if needed but boy were the lagoons we visited absolutely stunning. We were told by Vu when we got the kayaks from a floating hut that we should head over to the cave that said 'DANGER – No entry'. The group looked at each other confused, but stupidly did so anyway. It turns out that it's only dangerous if the water level meets the sign, thankfully it was nowhere near the sign and wouldn't be in the next few hours. As we paddled through the pitch black cave, following nothing but the faint glow of the provided head torches [They were as dim as a single candle in a dirty jar – Josh] we laughed at the other pairs banging into the sides whilst we navigated with relative ease (mainly due to Josh).
At the other end of the cave I was absolutely speechless. I've never visited somewhere that you can hear nothing, just absolute silence. It was incredible, especially when it was paired with crystal blue water in a huge lagoon, clear blue skies and emerald green trees scattered over limestone cliffs. The silence was soon disrupted by a couple in a kayak beating the sides of their kayak like a drum in order to scare fish into their fishing net, but even that was beautiful in this surrounding. During our kayaking tour we visited another cave and another lagoon, raced the other kayaks (we were definitely in the lead) and got to know the others better. I think it was my favourite thing we did in Vietnam.
Once we safely got back to the cruise boat we sailed to the place we were going to stay for the night through a beautiful sunset.
After the sunset and many photos we had a cooking class to make spring rolls, then had dinner and played many rounds of card games with the others in our party until bedtime. The games were hilarious, especially when people's competitive and/or silly natures came out. [During the games we chatted about various things, including politics. Three of the others were from Switzerland and they said, without a hint of irony, that they trust their politicians. They explained how their system works and that they truly felt their government was good. I never thought I'd head anyone say that. – Josh]
The next day we had breakfast and said goodbye to the others as they were on a 2 day cruise, it turned out we had the day to ourselves on a day boat with another tour guide. We waited around for a large day boat (for just the 2 of us) to pick us up where we then sat on the top deck all day and froze our butts off!
Mid morning our boat headed directly towards another boat – we had no idea what was happening. A local guide jumped over and introduced herself as Anna. Her English was limited, she didn't have much concept of personal space, she loved playing music out loud on her phone that she could sing along too but she was harmless.
Our day boat took us through floating fishing villages and then to Cat Ba island where we rode bicycles to a rather remote village.
The ride there was through a jurassic park–esque landscape and a tunnel that was pitch black (no lights this time!). The ride itself was more interesting than the village, whilst at the village we stood awkwardly at the 'places of interest' while Anna tried to tell us about them.
When we got back to the day boat we had another very good and large lunch which we shared with Anna and then sailed to another kayaking location. Josh and I had assumed that we would be getting in a kayak and following Anna around, however we were very wrong! She told Josh that he would be getting in a kayak by himself and I would get in one with her (the beautiful people kayak as she called it).
We paddled around to see oyster baskets under the water and then to a floating fishing village where Anna bought the biggest fish I've ever seen for 'Merry Christmas'.
At the end of our kayaking trip the day boat took us back to our cruise boat and we left Anna to get another boat home.
On the cruise boat we met new people who had started their tours that day and had more incredible food before getting to bed early after being exhausted from the cold.
The next day was our last on the cruise and also the shortest. In the morning we joined the new people to take the tender boat to Halong Bay pearl farm. On our way to the pearl farm one of the cruise workers laid down a very long fishing net which he marked with a flag, the itinerary said if any fish were caught they would be served for lunch – Josh and I had our doubts that there'd be fish for lunch!
The boat then continued its journey and took us to the pearl farm where we learnt how cultured pearls are made and got to see the various stages of the process which was fascinating and made me see pearls in a whole new light. We visited the shop at the end and I was just wishing I had money on me to buy a piece of jewellery to remind me of the amazing experiences we'd had during the cruise.
We then headed back to the cruise boat, taking the net back up and checking it for any catches. Josh and I were right – no fish, mainly rubbish. (Don't even get me started on saving the world, I'll be doing another post on that soon.) When back at the boat I discovered I did have money on me all along – gutted. We then learnt a new card game from a Portuguese traveller and had lunch with some lovely people from India and the Philippines.
As soon as lunch was over we found ourselves boarding a much newer and faster speedboat than the one we'd arrived on (we most definitely got facelifts on the way back to the harbour). We were then crammed into the back of a minivan to Hanoi for a rather long journey back, particularly as we got stuck in a standstill as there was a fight in the middle of the road which involved someone being thrown across the road!
Looking back on it nearly a month later, I'm so glad that we took the decision to spend the money on a three day cruise. It was incredible to see how people live on the floating villages, I never in my wildest dreams expected to kayak through a silent picturesque lagoon and I had no idea how a cultured pearl was formed prior to the trip. We met interesting people, had amazing food and made memories that will hopefully last a lifetime. If you get the opportunity I would wholly recommend it, and think any cruise company you go with will offer a similar experience.