Swimming, Hiking and Kayaking in Halong Bay…

Our last evening in Hanoi was rounded off with a slap up meal at Le Pub (Vietnamese fried rice, chip butties, beer and ice cream!) before an early night ready for our 8am bus ride to Halong Bay.

This was the day we had been waiting for ever since we had left on our overland trip to Oz – Halong Bay was the one place that we had both been day-dreaming of after seeing the spectacular photos of Vietnam’s most stunning coastline. So after a bit of a rushed breakfast the coach picked us up first before collecting other people from various hotels and hostels around Hanoi and we headed off on the 3 hour trip to Halong City.

After a short ‘refreshment stop’ we arrived at the harbour at around quarter to 12 and waited with hundreds of other tourists for our tender to arrive to take us out to the Junk boat we were to spend the night on. The weather was dry, hot and sunny – something that we had kept our fingers crossed for since we booked our trip – so we were looking forward to being able to take a dip in the crystal clear waters as soon as possible!

After we reached our boat, it started crusing further out into Halong Bay, past the dramatic-looking limestone rock formations that dominate this whole area.

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We had lunch on board and met some of our fellow passengers. Lunch was nice – rice, spring rolls, chicken, veg, salad and fresh seafood – but there definitely wasn’t enough to fill us up or give us some extra strength for the kayaking we were planning for later!

The boat cruised up to one of Halong Bay’s most famous caves – Sung Sot (which means ‘amazing’). This consists of three chambers – the last one being the biggest and most impressive, full of rock formations, pools, stalagtites and stalagmites. Our guide Trang (aka ‘Captain Jack, because he liked Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Carribean!) pointed out some rock formations which apparently looked like a range of different objects or animals (if you used your imagination), like elephants, pointing fingers, ice cream cones and monkey heads. We didn’t think they looked anything like he thought they did, but it was fun to guess for ourselves!

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Once we’d looked around the three chambers we got back onto the boat and headed over to a nearby floating village where we grabbed some kayaks and went kayaking around this part of the bay. It was beautiful but pretty knackering despite the relatively still waters! We tried our best to row out as far as we could, towards some other small caves and beaches that we could spy in the distance. They were a lot further than we thought however!

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Tired out we got back on the boat and sat on the deck, taking in the amazing views. The boat then stopped for a while so that we could all jump into the water for a swim! Everybody was daring eachother to jump in from the top deck and a few of them did (not us!) – the first deck was high enough, especially when you’re standing on top of the side rail, while it wobbles around in the breeze! The water was lovely and warm but so full of salt! It’s easy to forget that you’re about to jump into the sea when the water is so clear and still, but it soon hits you as soon as you get a mouthfull of salt water!

After our swim, we dried off back on the boat and watched as the sun went down, enjoying (an ‘okay’ glass of Vietnamese (De Lat) wine. It was hard not to feel a little bit guilty, relaxing in this awesome place while we knew that everyone back at home was hard at work!

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When it got dark, we moored up and had dinner on the boat – a much bigger spread than lunch  – and chatted for a while with our ‘shipmates’. Soon, a storm picked up out of nowhere and we went back out on deck to watch the lightening illuminate the giant rock formations around us. It was pretty dramatic being out at sea with the storm and lashing rain! The rain lasted most of the night but luckily didn’t keep us up and we had a relatively good night’s sleep on board (and I didn’t get sea sick once!)

The next morning after breakfast the boat took us to Cat Ba Island, where we took a bus to the very big and very green National Park. We had opted to do some trekking in the Park so the guide took a group of us up an extremely steep and very slippery trail! The rain the night before had made the ground really treacherous and we literally had to scramble on hands and knees in some places to get over the rocky hills. We got absolutely covered in mud and mosquito bites but when we got to the highest point on Cat Ba, it was so worth it! We could look back over the national park for miles – right above the dense forests.

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There was an old watchtower at the top too – a great big rusty old thing that we had been warned could only hold around 5 people at a time! We couldn’t get all the way there without going to the top however, so after a couple of minutes rest, we scrambled up there too to get an even better view!

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Going back down the trail was just as difficult as going up and it was hard to keep our footing without sliding down a few rocks, but we got there in the end and spent about 15 minutes trying to clear the mud from our shoes and legs!

We then got back onto the bus which took us to Beo Harbour where we got onto a tiny boat that brought us to Monkey Island. The boat had room for about 7 people (and our huge backpacks!) and took us on a 25 minute ride past floating villages and fish farms. As we got nearer to Monkey Island all of us let out a few ‘wow’s – the island looked amazing, pretty much like a paradise island and we couldn’t believe that we were actually going to stay there for the night!

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As soon as the boat pulled up to the beach, we checked into our sea-view bungalows. I could definitely see myself staying in these for a while! They had a great view of the beach and sea, with plants and a swinging seat outside the door. This part of our trip was all about simple relaxation and as one of our fellow monkey-islanders said, we had “nothing to do and all day to do it!”

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First, we went and had lunch in the resort’s restaurant overlooking the beach, then had a few hours to kill, swimming in the sea and kayaking (again, much further out to sea than we meant to!) until the guide re-appeared to take us to the other side of the island.

The island didn’t get it’s name for nothing – it’s home to a group of around 80 monkeys, so we hiked round to ‘monkey beach’ (well, more like climbed there over more rocky hills!) to see them. They were so cute and we couldn’t believe how close they came! One of them started grabbing at a can of Fanta that one of the other girls was holding so the guide shouted at her to “Free the Fanta!” – as soon as she did, the monkey started downing it! Another monkey jumped on Richard’s foot and started pulling his shoelaces, but there was no way the monkey was getting his shoes!

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We stayed, watching the monkeys for quite a while, until the sun started to set, and made our way back over to our beach. The guide decided to set up a ‘floating bar’ (aka, he sat in a canoe and handed out free cocktails to us while we tried to keep afloat on a rubber ring!). The cocktail itself was lovely and we managed to drink most of it without splashing sea salt into the cup!

Soon, it got dark and we got dressed for the buffet dinner that had been set up for us. We decided to buy a bottle of wine to drink with our food, with the intention that we’d finish it off while sat on our garden swing after we’d eaten, but it didn’t quite turn out that way! While we were eating we were joined by another couple, who were also staying at the resort. Ali was Australian and J from South Africa and they both worked on a superyacht in Abu Dabi. We chatted for a while about some of the boats they had worked on, some of which Richard did work on while we lived in Mallorca. We all got on really well and quickly ordered another bottle of wine, followed by another, followed by another….until the bar ran out of wine!

I know that we bought three bottles of wine ourselves and they must have bought at least one more than us – it’s amazing how quickly you can go through bottles without even realising! We had such a good night and went to bed at around 2am, slightly scared about the fact that we had to get on another boat in the morning and would probably feel a bit ‘rough’!

Breakfast the next morning was at 7.30 so we dragged ourselves up, had something to eat and prepared to say goodbye to the island – we could have easily stayed another night, but had already booked our Open Bus tickets to take us towards South Vietnam. We got back on the small boat that brought us here and went back to Cat Ba Island, where we got the bus back to the other side and caught our original tender back to our Junk Boat.

We cruised again through Halong Bay, a different way to the first cruise we had, but unfortunately the weather turned again and we got more thunder, lightening and rain! This rain continued all the way back to Halong City, where we went to a local restaurant for lunch, before getting the bus back to Hanoi.

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There was something wrong with the bus’ wheels on the way back so the driver had to stop at a garage. This and a number of other delays made us nearly two hours late in getting back to Hanoi. We couldn’t face getting straight onto a sleeper bus to our next destination (Hue) so decided to stay one more night at the Little Hanoi Hostel to give ourselves (and my ‘slight’ hangover’! a bit of rest!

We had an ‘incident’ that evening when we went to pick up our Open Bus tickets from the agency we booked with (which culminated with me being hit with an office phone as well as the contents of the travel agent’s desk when he threw it at us after refusing to, (a) give us our tickets or (b) give us our money back!) but after leaving – complete with refund of course, we had a relatively chilled out evening, watching a film, doing some washing and eating noodle soup and went to sleep dreaming about the awesome Halong Bay and Monkey Island!

The next day we had a nice lie in, followed by a trip to the pharmacy to heal my bruises after the night before, and a visit to the British Embassy to report the not-so-nice travel agent, then we boarded our bus to Hue!…

(Note: If you want to book Open Bus tickets for Vietnam, receive good service and actually receive the tickets themselves, use the official Sinh Tourist company, not one of the many fake ones dotted about! Their website address is www.thesinhtourist.vn so there is no need to use a potentially unreputable agency!)

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