|Idyllic scenery: A view of the spectacular Ha Long Bay from the entrance of Surprising Cave, some 134 stone steps above the boat pier. — VNS Photo Khanh Chi
by Nguyen Khanh Chi
I have been to Ha Long Bay many times but have never experienced a cruise. So when my parents asked me to join them on an overnight trip, I jumped at the chance.
We opted for a two-day, one-night excursion in late October and were thoroughly enchanted.
The US$80 ticket covered the cruise, the bus journey between Ha Noi and Ha Long City, the tour guide and all meals. Early in the morning, a bus picked us up in Ha Noi. When enough passengers were on board, we left for Quang Ninh Province's Ha Long City. In our tour group were Australians, Russians, a Vietnamese couple and a French family.
At noon, we arrived at the Ha Long boat wharf, which was packed with two-tier and three-tier boats of different sizes and standards.
About half an hour passed as we checked in and sailed off. We were then free to enjoy our lunch of oyster soup, fresh grilled prawns, fried fish, and steamed cutter fish whilst feasting our eyes on the incredibly beautiful scenery surrounding us.
We felt as if we were in paradise. We saw pagodas along some islets, caves, small villages and many fishermen in their boats.
The wooden junk surfed gently over limestone rocks, and the guide Vu Van Khoa started telling us about our surroundings.
|All aboard: Tourists sit on the deck, sipping fresh drinks while enjoying the breeze.
On the right side of the junk, he pointed out a rock that resembled a dog. Ten minutes later, our boat sailed towards two magnificent rocks shaped like a pair of roosters facing each other; this was Ga Choi Island.
"The image of these rocks in front of you is printed on the face of the 200,000 dong note," Khoa said, raising the note high in the air for all to see.
This was Australian tourist John Gibson's third visit to the bay and his second experience of a cruise. He still considers it worth the trip.
"I think Ha Long Bay is probably a wonder of the world, and UNESCO has to agree," joked Gibson, who hails from Brisbane.
"This time, I've brought my wife. She has never been here before. Now, she has seen it for herself and has the same opinion as I do," said Gibson.
"The food is entirely Vietnamese cuisine, which adds to the excitement and the comfort of our stay. That's the way to do it [by enjoying the bay views on a junk boat]. It is safe, and the service is very good."
|Scenic paddle: Tourists take a closer look of caves from their kayaks. — Photos Bang Van
The changing shades of colours in the sky differ from those typically seen in the bay. There were rocks of different shapes and sizes, and a light fog followed us on our three-hour sail from the port to one of the floating villages on the bay, where we hoped to see oyster pearl cultivation activities. Not one second was wasted.
At the Ha Long Pearl museum, the museum guide gave us a summarised history of the area and noted the categories of pearls originating from both Viet Nam and other far-off regions such as North America. Visitors also got to know how pearls are raised and extracted from the oysters.
Later, we docked at Titop Island, which is named after the Russian hero, cosmonaut Gherman Stepanovich Titov. Here, we could swim, play sports, or climb to the top of the Titop mountain, some 200 metres above sea level. When I reached the summit, I was spellbound by the spectacular panoramic view of the bay, even though it was not a clear sunny day.
A shower followed by a feast of seafood dishes with eye-catching decorations in the romantic setting of candlelight and soft music made me feel completely at ease.
Friendships were easily struck up within our company after the dinner service. A Russian couple gifted us some souvenirs imprinted with the logo of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, Gibson performed a few magic tricks for the kids, and the 4-year-old son of the French family crooned the nursery rhyme Incy Wincy Spider. Later that evening, I lay on a recliner on the upper deck, enjoying the cool breeze and humming along to the melodies wafting in from elsewhere on the boat.
Lights glittered on the tens of boats teeming around us, making the bay appear like a small city by night.
I awoke early the next morning, so I could catch the sunrise. The guide had told me it was best viewed from a junk boat. Sunsets were said to be equally breathtaking. I enjoyed watching the sun's rays reflect off the boats.
Later that day, we went to one of the islands to visit the Surprising Cave, and indeed, it was surprisingly large and beautiful, with three chambers.
"This is my family's first time seeing such things. It is really fascinating and so peaceful here," said the French lady Delphine Meistermann.
"The experience is totally different from anything we've done before, so I would certainly recommend it to my friends. The rocks seemed very mysterious yesterday, when the fog was swirling around them," she noted.
"You know you are in the middle of nature here, even though there are many boats all around us. It's cosy and comfortable.
"I wouldn't do it for a whole month, but for one or two nights, it's nice and really, really different from the sounds, smells, and level of comfort one experiences in the city." — VNS