10 January 2013
We have an early start next morning with a 4 hr bus ride out to Halong Bay on which we watch rural life go by. It seems that every piece of available land from traffic islands to a scrap of dirt outside a house. Land is at a premium and road frontage is all important so that people can catch the passing trade but this means that all buildings are long and narrow, sometimes only a very few feet wide, and then they build upwards. Even in the countryside where there are no neighbours tall thin houses sprout out of the rice paddies and vegetable fields.
Human and beast toil together to reap all that is possible out of the land sometimes joined by rudimentary mechanisation and often punctuated by clusters of graves. Although 70% of Vietnamese list their religion as none most believe in reincarnation so it is important that they bury rather than cremate bodies and there is a practise of 2 burials one 3 years later once the spirit has departed. The graves in the fields are from earlier times when there was no restriction on burials and people would follow the advice of the shaman as to the most auspicious place for the burial.
Apparently 2.8 million tour groups visit Halong Bay each year – it feels like they have all arrived at once but when we are safely on board the Bien Ngoc (Pearl) 12 and have jostled our way out of the harbour we begin to relax again and enjoy our beautiful surroundings. We have lovely cabins all with sea views. We are introduced to our crew and decide that it was a tough job but someone had to enjoy the magnificent feast that was laid out for us.
We cruise amongst the nearly 2000 limestone karst islands heading towards our first destination. Again we are forced to join the hordes of people swarming through the magnificent cave complex that stretches vast distances into the cliffs but it is well worth enduring to see such natural splendour.
The next stop is rather less crowded as it involves climbing up another few hundred steps to the top of a peak where the famous photos of Halong Bay are taken from. The views are spectacular and from some angles we are able to see views unsullied by the plethora of craft that swarm around. However we have not seen the sun or even the sky since we landed in Vietnam just a cloudy haze that meant that distant objects appeared to be in a snow storm. We are dubious about the promotional photographs that show a single picturesque junk sailing tranquilly on glass calm blue waters under a cloudless sky.
We are also beginning to doubt that it ever gets warm enough to swim as we layer on all our clothes and look forward to evening when we will be allowed to turn on our cabin heaters.
Despite this we decide that cocktails on the back deck once we anchor for the night are definitely in order. We also discover that they have a good selection of wines and all decide on a break from the ubiquitous beer.
Our dinner is sumptuous and beautifully decorated with the most amazing vegetable carvings. After dinner our chef (23yr old Bon demonstrates the art of creating carrot netting and the most magnificent watermelon carving. Bon is so shy but works away intently and treats us to a little smile each time we applaud another intricate part of the masterpiece. Local guide San (a carpenter’s son we discover) then surprises us with his first attempt at watermelon carving.
For this and other similar tours see:
Peregrine Adventures (Comfort tours)
Geckos Adventures (for 18 to 30s)
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