Monday, June 12, 2017

Vietnam - Halong Bay

The incredible view from Surprise Cave in Halong Bay

The next stop on our journey around Vietnam was a cruise around the magnificent Halong Bay.  This part of the holiday was the absolute highlight for me.  We left Hanoi for Halong Bay, not entirely sure how much we were going to enjoy Halong Bay.  We had left booking the cruise options until the very last minute, as no one could make their minds up about when and where to go.  One of the significant disadvantages of travelling with a large group is the need to take multiple peoples annual leave options and interests into consideration!  As we had deliberated for so long about where to go and what to do, we were unable to book into our preferred option for the Halong Bay part of the holiday.  We had intended to book a private cruise on a traditional Indochine Junk, which sounded divine.  Sadly, they were all booked and the next best option that we could find that could accommodate all of us was a 3 day cruise on Au Co 1.  We were all a bit unsure about what this experience would be like, none of us are cruise people and the idea of being locked away on a boat with 66 other tourists filled some of us with trepidation.  

Upon arrival at Tuan Chau Port, where our cruise was to depart from, we were ushered to the waiting area with our fellow travellers, all of us surreptitiously eyeballing each other.  A few other families, multiple young couples and so on,  then much to our collective horror, a large group of young men suddenly appeared.  All of them dressed in matching colourful Hawaiian shirts.  The communal gasp of horror was almost audible.  My sister in law and I locked eyes, both of us instantly imagining all sorts of potential raucous debauchery.  Shame on all of us though, the cruise was amazing, we loved every second of it.  Writing this today, months afterwards, I would still say that it is one of the best things that we have ever done as a family. The Hawaiian shirted louts? Well, they turned out to be a group of Norwegian engineering students that were finishing up a study tour of Asia and were a charming and polite group of young men, who turned out to be great fun to be around.   A true lesson in not making assumptions was learnt.

The boat was very clean and well equipped.  The food was great (no one got sick!), the seafood barbeque dinner in particular on the boats rooftop was memorable not only for the magical setting but also for the seafood feast.   The crew of the Au Co were fantastic, lots of fun, brilliant with kids and very talented at keeping everyone entertained.   There were plenty of different activities available onboard and it is important to note that there was no obligation to take part in any of these.  Indeed,  I wouldn't have known that some of them had even taken place had the boys not participated and provided me with feedback.  Activities that were offered on our cruise included kayaking tours of Ba Trai Dao area and also Dark and Bright Lagoon.  A traditional bamboo boat ride during which we actually saw some Cat Ba Langurs playing.  Apparently we were extremely lucky to see these as there are fewer than 60 remaining.  Ross and Hamish were able to paddle very close to them in their kayak.  I tried to take photos but couldn't manage it with my phone unfortunately.  In the evenings the boys busied themselves squid fishing off the side of the boat with the crew.  Every morning there was a tai chi lesson on the deck, Hamish, my nephew and my Mum all did this together and enjoyed it!  There were cooking lessons and fruit carving lessons before dinner.  All in all, if you wanted to be busy there was plenty to do,  if you just wanted to lie on the deck drinking cocktails and soaking in the wonder of Halong, that was equally possible!

Nick on the top deck of the Au Co 1

Every evening we enjoyed sunset cocktails on the rooftop of the Au Co and marvelled at the wonder surrounding us

Activities of note included a visit to Surprise Cave in Lan Ha Bay.  The cave was enormous, made up of three separate chambers, all filled with delicate stalactites and stalagmites.  It was quite a hike both up to the cave and then back down again and it is not something that I would  recommend unless you are reasonably fit and confident on your feet.  We all enjoyed the exercise though and it was well worth the walk to enjoy the magnificent view from the exit of the cave.  Our visit to the cave was very early in the morning and the caves were empty as we walked through.  I have since heard that it can be chaotically busy later in the day when the day boats visit Halong so that is something to consider when tossing up between an overnight cruise visit to Halong or a day trip.  

Inside one of the immense chambers of Surprise Cave.  The two tiny figures are Hamish and my nephew who ran about inside the cave having the time of their lives.

The largest chamber inside Surprise Cave is the last before you exit.  
The Cave was used by the Vietcong Army as a hide out during the Vietnam War and it was this aspect of the caves that probably fascinated the boys the most as well as the opportunity to have a run around.   For the rest of us it was a great opportunity to get some exercise and I would also recommend visiting the caves just to see the view from the caves exit.

Bikes lined up in preparation for the tour of Viet Hai Village

Another amazing Halong Bay experience organised by the Au Co crew was an afternoon spent exploring Viet Hai village on Cat Ba Island by bicycle.  Well we all cycled to the village and Nick who was training for NSWPSSA Cross Country ran the 6km to the village, much to the amusement of everyone else on the cruise and the villagers.  He was able to keep pace with us all also, pretty impressive in the heat and humidity!

Viet Hai village until recently was completely self sufficient and essentially isolated from the rest of the world only accessible by rough tracks through the jungle.   It is home to 80 families and is now open to a small amount of tourism.  We were permitted to visit as many of the Au Co Crew grew up in the village and the village is now the primary supplier of vegetables and fruit to the Au Co.  We were lucky enough to be given a tour of the sustainable and completely organic garden beds that supplied the majority of the food we were enjoying at every meal!

The "Au Co Organic Vegetable Gardens" on Cat Ba Island

After the tour of the gardens we were then permitted to explore the village and visit the small school.  Once again, we were the only tourists to be exploring the village and the whole experience felt like such a privilege. Chatting to the locals who all adored the boys and Hamish and my nephew loved an impromptu soccer game with some of the local boys.  The cycle ride to the village itself was beautiful, passing through tropical jungle and fields of grazing animals , there were a few hills but nothing too challenging and all the children managed the ride easily.  

Soccer truly is the worlds number one sport!  Hamish playing soccer with the boys of Viet Hai village that was cut off from the rest of the world until relatively recently.  

Halong Bay is incredibly beautiful,  the water is so still and the impressive limestone island formations so extraordinary that you truly experience moments of breathtaking wonder.  Be warned though, the rubbish in the water is appalling.  The crew explained to us that most of the rubbish floats down to Halong from China and that almost all the professionally operated cruise ship companies are now sponsoring rubbish collection programs.  Even so the amount of rubbish is extraordinary and there is only so much that the cruise ship companies and local people can manage.  If any readers are lucky enough to visit Halong Bay and experience the serenity and yet striking beauty of this World Heritage listed site please consider writing to UNESCO and lobbying for the protection of the people whose livelihood depends upon the cleanliness of the water, those that inhabit the floating villages and simply for the protection of the environment.

Tips for Halong Bay:

 - Pack a few warm clothes, the evenings out on the deck were quite cool and we were literally layering clothes on in order to keep warm.  The days were beautiful though and the water was lovely and refreshing. (Yes we swam despite the rubbish and no one ended up sick or acquired google worthy skin infections!)
- Make sure you pack a waterproof camera or a gopro to take photos of kayaking expeditions.
- Book well in advance and only with a reputable company, we have heard a few horror stories about overbooked ships and shonky cruise ship operators.

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