April 20, 2009

A Tour of Halong Bay

My bike is sitting un-used in my room, waiting for a ride. I have not cycled since arrival in Hanoi as it looks to be quite a big challenge to navigate the horrible traffic congestion out on those streets. It is the worst I've ever seen, and I've been to quite a number of third world countries. It is a total free-for-all out there. Accidents are commonplace, much like bumper cars, except with bicycles, motor bikes, and pedestrians running into each other.

I was up early for an all day guided tour to Halong Bay. The cost was $29 and included lunch. I originally had planned on cycling out to Halong and then spending a couple of days exploring that area, but I'm already a couple of days behind my planned time for this trip and by taking a commercial tour, it will get me back on track. At 6:30am I took the elevator down to the lobby, it was pitch back inside and outside, no lighting in the lobby at all. The front doors were locked and closed shutters blocked the view to the street. As I got used to the darkness and looked around the lobby, I could make out people sleeping on cots and also that there were a number of motor bikes parked in the lobby too. I stood around wondering how I was going to get outside where I would be picked up by the tour company mini-van. Soon, a few of those sleeping bodies began to stir and awaken. Within a few minutes they were all getting off their cots, turning on the lights, folding the cots up along with their bedding, and preparing for the work day ahead. These people were all hotel employees, and I surmised that this hotel is also their home. What a way to exist! I'm sure many other employees live in the same manner at other businesses.

The tour van came by at exactly 7:30am and we headed east out of the city on our way to the Gulf of Tonkin, 115 miles away. We soon crossed over the Red River, named not for political reasons, but because of a mineral in the river that turns the water a red color. The trip to Halong would take 3 1/2 hours and part way our group of 8 tourists stopped at a small village for a tour of a cottage industry. This occurred I would guess, because the driver would get a commission on whatever we would purchase while shopping there. It seems that every village produces or manufactures a particular product or item, and in this case it was a village of silk weavers and embroiders. I must admit, these artists did amazing work. When given a small 6 inch photograph, they would embroider a duplicate scene to a size of 12 inches, or up to a three foot size reproduction in perfect detail, using about 100 stitches or more per inch. You could stand a foot away and not be able to tell that it was not an enlargement of the photo, or a very good oil reproduction. I was really impressed with the quality and would have loved to have purchased one, but such is my limitation when touring by bicycle. Space is always a big consideration and at a premium, with no extra room for non-necessities. When one of these masterpieces is finished, it is fairly weighty and quite stiff, so they cannot be rolled into a smaller package.

After that break, we continued on. I found myself sitting next to a young gal from Canada named Jennifer. She is working in Vietnam and was on a break, therefore taking today's tour. Her job description is something we would all probably love. She works for an international five star hotel chain and therefore travels world wide checking into the company's hotels, incognito, and spending five days at each one. She uses all the amenities the hotel offers in addition to eating in their restaurants, and then writes a report on her findings. After a five day stay, she flies on to the next one. All her expenses are paid, and she gets a salary in addition. I didn't know such a job existed! She told me she is due for a vacation soon, and I asked her where she will go on a vacation as it appeared to me that she is on a perpetual vacation. He favorite vacation spot... Thailand! Mine too! Then she told me that when she goes on a vacation, she never stays in a five star accommodation, even with a big discount, she prefers smaller, unique accommodations with a local atmosphere instead of the same-same accommodations of the big chain hotels. She asked me for some suggestions on places to go and places to stay in Thailand, and I offered her some advice on great locations like Koh Samui, and Phuket which are a couple of my favorite places to visit.

After our little shopping spree, we continued on. This mini-van driver was much more sane than the insane driver I had from the airport. At one point we passed a truck load of ducks, each one was placed in a white sack with a slit for the duck's head. There must have been at least a thousand birds packed on that truck and all their heads were bobbing up and down and darting in every which direction. We were all amused at that sight. Legend says that a huge dragon ran down from the highest mountains and into the sea at Halong Bay. On it's way down the mountainside, the dragon's immense tail was swaying to and fro and thereby digging very deep valleys and raising the soil to form higher mountains. These deep valleys were then filled with sea water and that action created the 3,000 islands that make up Halong Bay.

When we arrived at the pier on the bay shore, we were divided into 3 groups, so each group had it's own guide/translator. Each group also had it's own boat. The group I was in boarded a 40 foot long converted junk that was actually pretty nice with a lower deck that served as a dinning room, and an open air upper deck which was for lounging. Our guide's name was Tom. Tom was a girl. Of course I teased her about the name, and she would just look at me with a 'I don't understand look'. I didn't think she knew anything about teasing, so I explained that I was just having fun with her name. She told me she loved Americans!

We were served a great meal in the dinning room of the boat. There were 6 large plates of food, served family style, plus rice and drinks. The boat trip took us through a number of islands and we all relaxed on the teak lounges on the top deck. The trip took a couple of hours, the scenery was magnificent and the sea was calm and clear. We docked at one of the islands and then climbed a long staircase up the side of a mountain and entered some huge caverns. The caves were illuminated and had nice tiled pathways and stairs. The caverns were immense, so large that it was hard to realize their actual size. Tom gave us a running commentary, but her English was difficult to understand, so we didn't learn much. This trip to Halong Bay is considered the number one tourist destination in all of Vietnam. In 1994 this area was designated a World Heritage Site and became protected, that shows the importance of this beautiful spot.

We got back to Hanoi late in the day, about 8:30pm, and the driver unloaded all of us at a central location, not at each of our hotels. I was ravished by hunger by this time of day. Our drop-off location was near the lake so there were numerous restaurants to choose from. I chose "Mama Romas", a great choice, if I say so myself. The Ambiance was very nice, right out of Italy. There was a solo violinist playing soft romantic music right across from my table. The meal I ate was better than meals I got when visiting Italy! The only thing I missed was my sweetie who could be sitting in the vacant chair at my table. By the time I walked back to my hotel, the street sweepers, with brooms and shovels were out in force. It's a big job picking up all the trash that is deposited in the gutters and on the streets in this city. During the daytime, people toss all kinds of trash and garbage into the streets and there are piles of stinking garbage everywhere by nightfall. By morning, everything has been cleaned up.

Recommended vessels on Halong bay, Vietnam:

Overnight luxury cruise on Halong Bay: Indochinasails info@indochinasails.com; www.indochinasails.com

By BOBBY NGUYEN

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