Thursday, June 18, 2009

Halong Bay, Vietnam

One of our main reasons for visiting Vietnam, was to go to beautiful Halong Bay. Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is situated east of Hanoi. What makes Halong Bay so beautiful and special, is the presence of thousands of limestone islands jutting out of the ocean. There are said to be over 2000 of these islands and they are scattered all over the bay. They come in all shapes and sizes, and most are covered with thick jungle vegetation, trees and bird life (it was amazing to hear the sounds coming from some of these islands). It is possible to do a long 1 day trip to Halong Bay, but we opted instead for a 2 day/1 night cruise on a "junk" with Bhaya Cruises. We had read very positive reviews about Bhaya Cruises and they did not disappoint. Bhaya Cruises arranged for one of their drivers to pick us up in Hanoi and he drove us to Halong Bay (about a 3 hour drive). We had refreshments at the Bhaya Cafe in Halong Bay, before boarding a small passenger boat that took us to the Bhaya Classic. The Bhaya Classic is a beautiful boat, with 20 cabins that can accommodate up to 40 passengers. Fortunately on our cruise there were only 14 passengers, so it was a nice small intimate group. On arriving at the Bhaya Classic, we were welcomed on board by the captain and his wonderful staff. We were escorted to the beautiful dining area where we enjoyed cocktails and were given a briefing by the Cruise Director. We were then escorted to our cabins and given time to settle in before lunch was served. We enjoyed a delicious buffet style lunch with lots of seafood, as the boat cruised slowly among the magnificent limestone islands. This was the start of a very enjoyable and relaxing cruise around the bay.

Vung Vieng Floating Village
After lunch, we all boarded the small passenger boat which took us to the Vung Vieng Floating Village. Vung Vieng is one of many floating villages in Halong Bay. We disembarked at the central store of Vung Vieng Floating Village and then each couple got on a sanpan. These sanpans were all rowed by ladies and they were incredibly strong. They rowed us along the floating village and along picturesque parts of the bay. It was interesting to see all these families (and some dogs) living on the water. There are currently over 60 families living in this floating village and some have been living here for generations.

Pearl Farm
After visiting the floating village, we disembarked from the sanpans and again boarded the small passenger boat. We were then taken to a pearl farm, where we were shown how pearls are cultivated and extracted. It was a very interesting visit, where we also got the opportunity to buy individual cultured pearls (all colours from white and pink to black pearls) and pearl jewellery.
After our visit, the small passenger boat took us back to the Bhaya Classic, where we had some free time to either swim in the emerald water, kayak, have a spa treatment or just relax.

Food demonstration on the sundeck
In the late afternoon, the Bhaya Classic docked for the evening and we were invited to join the chef on the deck for a cooking demonstration. He showed us how to make fried Vietnamese spring rolls. It was fun as we all got a chance to go up to the table to experiment and make a spring roll. These spring rolls were then fried, after which we got to taste the finished product. After the food demonstration, we stayed on the deck to enjoy cocktails and the gorgeous sunset over Halong Bay.
Afer dark we enjoyed a delicious dinner (we had a choice of either beef or lamb) and then went back to the deck to look at the stars - they were amazing ! Unfortunately in most big cities, stars are a rare sighting, so this was a spectacular view, especially as it was pitch dark all around us. For evening entertainment, we had the option to watch the 1992 French movie Indochine with Catherine Deneuve, but we decided to give this a skip, as we wanted to get a good night's sleep so we could get up early the next morning.

Tai Chi with the Cruise Director
We were invited the night before, to join the Cruise Director for Tai Chi the next morning on the sundeck at 6:15 am. We we hoping to see the sun rise, but by the time we got to the deck at 6:20 am, the sun was already out (we were told afterwards that the sun rises very early in Halong Bay). Some people joined the Cruise Director for Tai Chi, while some of us took in the gorgeous setting while enjoying tea and coffee.

Lang Chai Cua Van Fishing Village
After Tai Chi and tea on the sundeck, we enjoyed a nice continental breakfast before arriving at the Lang Chai Cua fishing village. We did not disembark here, but just passed by on our way to the Sung Sot caves. This is primarily a floating village, where the people make a living from fishing.

Sung Sot Cave
Several of these limestone islands are hollow with enormous caves. The small passenger boat took us to the biggest and most famous of these caves - the Sung Sot cave (also known as the Surprise Grotto). Sung Sot is situated on Bo Hon Island in the middle of Halong Bay. We disembarked at the small pier and had to climb about 50 steep stairs to get to the entrance of the cave. The steep climb was well worth it because the view from the top of Bo Hon Bay was breathtaking (it is the iconic view that appears on many postcards of Halong Bay).
The cave consists of two chambers with stalactites and stalagmites of all shapes and sizes. The 2rd chamber, is the bigger of the two and can hold thousands of people. It was great walking in the cave and seeing this natural treasure.

After our visit to the Sung Sot Cave, the passenger boat took us back to the Bhaya Classic, where we enjoyed another delicious lunch. After lunch we cruised back at a leisurely pace, getting our final glimpse of the limestone islands. We disembarking at Bhaya Cafe, where a driver was waiting to take us back to Hanoi. We had an unforgettable time in Halong Bay and a wonderful cruise.

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