We had been looking forward to Southeast Asia for months, especially Vietnam. It’s a region neither of us had been to before & we figured it was going to be unlike anything we had ever experienced. So far, we’ve been right.
I’ve basically allowed myself a week or more of no writing. Mainly, we’ve been site seeing, relaxing & sampling (lots) of the local beers. It seems each city or area in Vietnam has their own brand: Ha Noi beer, Ha Long beer, Saigon beer (I guess Ho Chi Minh beer is too long?) & so forth. As good tourists, we’ve made it our mission to unbiasedly try all we can, ensuring we give each a fair shot.
Vietnam has felt like the real traveling we’ve been missing in the past few months. Don't get me wrong, Europe was amazing - a fantastic experience we won’t forget, but Vietnam is more relaxed, less planned & less stressful travel. This probably sounds contradictory to the insane traffic & less than ideal logistics for getting around compared to other developed countries. Somehow amongst the chaos we feel more at ease, just sit back & watch it all play out.
Ha Long Bay
If you know anything of Vietnam, you probably know Ha Long Bay. It is one of the most recognizable photo ops in the world - an instagrammers paradise. Legend has it a dragon descended upon the bay thousands of years ago in Vietnam’s time of great need. The dragon deposited emeralds from its mouth to line the bay & keep it save the people & keep them safe from new invaders. While I probably learned how these marvels would have formed in some geology class, being deposited by a dragon seems just as feasible when you look out into the water.
Tourists are flocking here by the boat load & we were among them. We decided on a splurge & signed up for a 2 night “junk boat” tour & found out that these companies have this down to a science. You’re picked up from Ha Noi, deposited at the harbor, loading onto your respective boat & every 2-3 days they do it all over again with new sets of tourists. It’s like watching a well-oiled machine.
Once sufficiently on board & briefed of our itinerary (it was a packed one), we set off to cruise out into the famous bay. The giant rock guardians flanked either side of the boat as we slowly cruised past us & 20 dozen other boats for the day. But even with the “floating crowd” it was peaceful & quiet after the noisy chaos of Ha Noi. The overcast day couldn't detract from the magnificence that was Ha Long. There is no way to describe the depth of color variation among the rocks, nor the scale of these behemoths unless you see it for yourself.
Among our delightful planned activities for the day was hiking up to the peak of Titop Island, apparently named for a Russian pilot who visited one time? Random, but to each their own. Looking out from one side you could see vast calm waters, a quick glance over the other side & you’d spy all the boats lined up to drop off the next round of adventurers.
One plus of all our neighbors was that it looked cool at night with all the boats lit up around us; they provided beautiful shadowing to the rocks otherwise bathed in darkness.
Apparently, we had wisely chosen our boat company (or so they told us) as they had privileged access to areas other cruises did not. In the evening, we were brought around a smaller inlet where a fisherman & his family lived amongst the fish farms. They also stashed several kayaks behind the house & we jumped in for a bit of our own exploring in the coves.
It was so quiet & the cliffs so expansive Ben could whistle & you’d hear it echo back. He tried the “Hunger Games” tune & I swear I was expecting an answer from a Mockingjay.
Numerous jellyfish also lurked just beneath the surface with tentacles long enough to make Rapunzel jealous. Though we were assured they were harmless I chickened out of swimming. Ben however jumped right in.
Besides the giant apocalyptic mountain rocks, another of Ha Long’s crowd pleasers are the Surprise Caves. You’re funneled through a bit like a Disney World attraction, but the caves are impressive & worth a visit.
Our treat was we got to go ashore & explore them during a monsoon downpour. Regardless of how many layers I put on, I just ended up soaked to the bone.
For the breathtaking photos & all we had read about Ha Long Bay, we just knew it had to be the prettiest place we’d ever see. We had no idea what else was waiting around the bend.
Lan Ha Bay
As part of our little cruise deal, we could choose to spend two nights on the boat or 1 on the boat & 1 at a beach bungalow. While we had no idea what to expect, the beach bungalow option was cheaper so we just decided to go for it, whatever it may be like.
Best decision ever.
We were taken from our Royal Palace junk boat & onto a smaller transport boat. Our new guide exclaimed that our home for the evening would be far prettier, in his opinion, than Ha Long. We figured he was just talking it up, but we were 100% wrong.
As our boat weaved along the waterways, the giant rocks grew more numerous & stretched out in every direction we could see. We slowly glided past the floating fishing villages, so remote yet not without satellite TV!
Looking at such an incredibly unique way of life, we couldn't help but wonder at a very thought-provoking question…where do you teach the dogs to use the bathroom?
Finally, we arrived at our destination, a rustic “resort” on a little outcrop exclusive island of the larger Cat Ba Island. Here there were no more than 20 beach bungalows & it was half full at best, mostly a group of us from the cruise & another decent sized family.
Once we all realized we had a secluded beach to ourselves for the entire afternoon & a beach BBQ that evening…we were sold. They offered additional excursions from the resort, but we were having none of it. A couple of cold beers & beach towels were all we wanted for the rest of the day. And apparently, that was all we needed in the evening too. As the beers kept coming, we traded our towels for a pool table, playing multiple rounds on the salt covered, warped, but usable, table with our new cruise friends from across the globe.
When your morning view is as good as the one we had, we never wanted to leave the island. Our breakfast discussion was centered around what we could do for a living to ensure we stayed on the island.
But all good things must, unfortunately, come to an end & we were loaded back up to make the slow float back to Ha Long Harbor.
Pulling away from the bay was like feeling yourself waking up from a dream; one you aren’t ready to let go of & even if you do get back, you know it will probably be different each time. It hardly felt real, looking out over the water at such mesmerizing scenes. We could travel another million miles around the globe & never find a spot quiet like this one.