Indochina Day Twenty
21.02.2020 - 21.02.2020
Early morning in Bai Tu Long Bay
The Dragon Legend 2 stayed at anchor all night so there was no engine noise to disturb our sleep, although I was woken at one point by what I think must have been the anchor chain clinking as the ship changed position, perhaps with the turning tide. The sea was very still all night, too still in fact for me. I would have liked to have felt some movement as part of the experience of a night on a boat!
According to the itinerary there was to be morning coffee or tea served on the sun deck at 6.15, but there were a few spots of rain in the air so we found the coffee that I at least was craving downstairs at the bar. The rain came to nothing, thankfully, so I decided to join the pre-breakfast Tai Chi class on the sun deck, along with three other passengers. I've always had a slight curiosity about Tai Chi and this was a good opportunity to get a small taster. I enjoyed the stretch it gave me, and the need to focus. I may give it a more serious try one day!
Early morning in Bai Tu Long Bay, and Tai Chi on deck
Breakfast was served buffet style in the dining room, with a mix of Western and Asian dishes. Soon afterwards, we boarded one of the tenders for the short ride to one of the islets where we were to visit a cave.
Leaving Dragon Legend II to travel to the cave
Thien Canh Son Cave
Thien Canh Son Cave is just one of 59 known caves in the Halong Bay area. It is situated on Cong Do Island, one of the many islets that populate Bai Tu Long Bay. As that bay is less visited than its famous neighbour, so these caves are less visited than the most popular ones Sung Sot, but we nevertheless found ourselves just one group among several landing on the island. I got the impression that our guides were carefully timing our visit in coordination with those leading other groups, as space in the cave is naturally limited and only one or two groups can be in there at any one time. We had a lengthy briefing on the small concrete jetty where we landed before suddenly being told it was time to go!
Apart from that jetty and a small man-made sandy beach where some visitors leave their kayaks if arriving that way, the island is densely covered with trees and scrub. From out to sea it is hard to imagine that there might be caves behind all those trees – you can’t really even make out the flight of 70 steps that lead to the entrance of the cave although white flags indicate their presence.
We had been warned about the climb but everyone from our boat elected to join the trip and all of us made it up to the cave entrance, albeit some a little after the rest. I was pleased to see that I could keep up with the main group and there was time for photos at the top, where a small gap in the trees allowed for great views out to sea. We could spot our boat, Dragon Legend Two, among those moored a little distance away.
The steps to the cave from out at sea, and the Dragon Legend II seen from the entrance
View from the entrance to Thien Canh Son Cave
Us at the entrance
~ you should be able to see Dragon Legend II in the background of this shot but the light was too contrasty to capture our faces and the scene beyond
There was a further flight of about twenty steps down into the cave. Once inside it was dry and well lit, so easy enough to walk around and to take photos.
The cave has three chambers but we were told that one is very small and not open to visitors, so we visited just the two. They were linked by a short, but narrow and low, passage. At the far end of the second one the cave opened up on to a small ledge with more good views of the Dragon Legend Two and other boats below.
Formations in the first (left-hand photo) and second (right-hand photo) chambers
In the second chamber
Emerging from the second chamber
The guide from the boat had explained that prior to Halong Bay being protected local people used to take stalactites and stalagmites from the cave as souvenirs, but there were still some to be seen, and inevitably we were invited to see shapes in them - a snake, a dragon, the head of another dragon (I didn't like to mention that I thought it looked more like a horse - see photo above right)
Similarly the rock towers and islets in the surrounding area were pointed out by our guide as we made our return to the boat as resembling a variety of animals. Some were more obvious than the others - I liked the whale, but the camel and the anonymous animal drinking were stretching the point, I felt.
Islet nicknamed 'The Whale'
Back on the boat it was time to finish packing and to vacate our lovely cabin. We left the suitcases outside the door for collection later, paid our drinks bill (all meals were included in the mini cruise) and relaxed while enjoying the views as we started to make our way back to port.
A buffet 'brunch', really more a very early lunch, was served around 10.15, after which Chris and I hung out on the deck (the weather had brightened considerably) and watched as we neared Halong City.
Returning to Halong City
Back on dry land
By 11.00 we were mooring in the harbour. We were met in the terminal by Huan so were soon on our way. As our flight wasn't scheduled to leave Hanoi Airport, a two hour drive away, until 16.00, he suggested we made a brief stop at one of Halong's pearl farms. There a guide talked us through the process of cultivating pearls, and we watched as some women inserted tiny pellets into the oysters to trigger the production of a pearl. It was really little more than a sales pitch for the large shop that took up the bulk of the complex, but was mildly interesting nevertheless. And no, we didn't buy any pearl jewellery!
The pearl farm
Inserting a tiny pellet into an oyster
The drive to Noi Bai, Hanoi's airport, was uneventful (unless you count some typically Vietnamese near misses on the road). I took a few photos, more to pass the time than anything else. There was an impressive bridge over the Cam river near Hai Phong, a major port city.
View near Hai Phong
Bridge near Hai Phong
There were also some very large and ornate houses near the road. If you are rich in Vietnam, you make sure everyone knows it by building a house like this - even if it is right next to a motorway!
House by the road
We reached the airport and checked in with plenty of time to spare - time to have a coffee and check messages after 24 hours offline. The logo on my coffee cup looked suspiciously like a rip-off of Transport for London's famous roundel!
Flying to Danang
We boarded and took off on time. Visibility from my window seat was poor due to the high levels of pollution in Hanoi.
Just after take-off from Hanoi Airport
The only refreshments offered on board were small bottles (plastic, of course) of water. Chris and I shared one to save waste. Vietnam Airlines were operating a policy of not serving any food on flights because of the Coronavirus. It seemed an extreme response to us, in a country where only 16 cases had been found, and I failed to see how giving out sealed bottles of water was any less of a health risk than it would have been had they been accompanied by sealed packets of pretzels, for instance.
Coming into land at Danang
We landed on time in Danang, where the weather was noticeably warmer than further north but spitting a little with rain. We were met by our new guide, Loc, and driver La, for the journey to Hoi An of about 45 minutes. The road was lined with new hotel developments, with many of the major international chains represented plus some glitzy Chinese casinos. Vietnam may be technically a Communist country but capitalism is rife, it seems!
First evening in Hoi An
Our hotel in Hoi An, Vinh Hung Heritage, was in the old town (the only one to be located there, Loc told us) and no cars are allowed in that area, so we dropped our luggage at their sister hotel in the newer part before La parked as close as possible and Loc walked us to the hotel. It was dark by now and the streets were busy with people out to enjoy the evening - we were looking forward to joining them and starting to explore!
But first we had to check in, and we received a friendly welcome, with orange juice and fresh fruit. We were shown to our room on the first floor (second to US friends), having first removed our shoes to climb the wooden stairs. The hotel is built completely of wood and they are keen to look after it well.
The room was at the front of the building and a generous size. Loc had already told us that Michael Caine had stayed in this hotel while filming The Quiet American in Hoi An and now we learned that we were to stay in the same room!
Our bedroom (and Michael Caine's!)
Sign above our door
~ the other rooms had numbers, ours had a name!
But we didn't hang around too long as we wanted to get out to see a little bit of the town and get some dinner. We'd planned to check out a few restaurants before deciding where to eat but Chris took a fancy to one of the first that we came to, Home Hoi An, and we were able to get a great table on the terrace as the people who had reserved it had (bizarrely, we thought!) decided to eat inside. So we had an excellent first meal here - very friendly service, delicious food and a perfect people-watching spot!
Our meal at Home Hoi An
Home Hoi An
After dinner we had a short stroll to get out bearings in the old town and get the first few of the many 'lantern' photos I was to take here, before heading back to the hotel. It had been another long day!
Lanterns in old Hoi An
By the Thu Bon River at night