Sunday, January 4

Two-day trip to Halong Bay, Vietnam

Took a couple of days out from our stay in Hanoi to visit Halong Bay. We were originally planning just a day tour but the online advice was universally in favour of taking longer. Quite right too. It's a four-hour road trip from Hanoi to Halong, through uninspiring scenery, and even starting early in the morning wouldn't leave much time for more than lunch on the boat and a couple of hours cruising the bay. It deserves much more than that.
Halong Bay is  a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the new seven natural wonders of the world, and it's beautiful even in the monsoon season when the skies are cloudy and the water is grey instead of bright blue.
Ha-Long means 'descending dragon' and the bay features thousands of limestone rocks and isles which are presumably supposed to represent the scales of the drowned beast.
Hundreds of junk-style boats carry tourists to see them. Our boat, the Syrena, had 34 double cabins on two levels and the majority of the passengers were Taiwanese although there were several other nationalities. Once everyone was aboard we had lunch (buffet in the Lotus Restaurant/Bar - standard mix of western and Asian food but nicely presented and tasty.
The boats motor along quite slowly - they mostly have two ot three masts but unfortunately none of them raised the sails. Shame; it would have made for nice pictures.
The organisers pack a lot into the tour, beginning with a visit to the Surprising Cave, also known as Sung Sot cave. We're all ferried from our various junks by tenders. The landing stages are chocker!
Several million people come to these caves each year and I reckon most of them were there right then; a constant stream of people
queueing to climb stairs and follow the winding trail while several guides at a time talk and wave laser pointers around and people pause for selfies.
Next stop was Titop island, named after Russian cosmonaut Ghermann Titov when he visited Halong Bay in 1962.
The island has a pagoda-styled lookout at its summit - 427 winding stone steps up the mountain. Apparently the 360 degree view of Halong Bay is incredible but I'm sorry to say we didn't go up! Should have done. Instead we swam at the small sandy beach. The beach is protected from the bay itself by a floating net, necessary to stop such marine life as very large jellyfish from stinging tourists. I saw one of these jellyfish floating near the Syrena and it made me rather cautious when it came to the next part of the tour - a spot of kayaking. Very pleasant once we got the hang of steering and paddling and the exercise was good after a substantial lunch and the even more substantial dinner that was to follow. Well, more than just dinner - it was a ten-course banquet! Excellent.
Our cabin was compact bur comfortable with a double bed, en suite toilet and shower and a balcony. Good for sitting watching the lightning over the islands that night.
Next morning I joined the tour guide and half a dozen or so people at tai chi on the sun deck. It obviously takes practice to become graceful at this. After breakfast we visited a floating fishing village, Ba Hang, once home to 50 families but now down to less than twenty as people pack up and head for the mainland.
A small Vietnamese lady rowed us, four to a boat, through the village and surrounding inlets, a peaceful forty-five minute journey but it must have been hard work for the rower.
Then it was back to the Syrena for brunch, the cruise back to Halong and the four-hour drive to Hanoi.
Here are some of the highlights.