Indochina Day Nineteen
20.02.2020 - 20.02.2020
The same (I assumed) rooster that had woken us early yesterday did so again this morning, but what previously had seemed like interesting local colour was today mainly just irritating! But no matter - we needed to be up quite early for our departure to Halong Bay (albeit not at 5.30 am).
The drive to Halong Bay
Huan picked us up after breakfast. He had explained yesterday that there were two roads we could take - one newer and faster, the other slower but offering more opportunities to stop. We had decided to take the slow road today (hence the prompt departure) and the fast one on our return to Hanoi tomorrow when we would have a plane to catch.
The weather was dull and misty as we left Hanoi, crossing the Red River on one of five bridges. Once we cleared the city sprawl, where a lot of new construction was taking place, we were in a flat area with a mix of farming (predominately rice fields and vegetables) and industry - we passed a power station, cement factory, electronics factories and others.
Paddy fields on the road to Halong Bay
We stopped for refreshments in Sao Do, at a complex where disabled people are employed in a range of handicrafts. Huan said it was a convenient stop, around halfway, and a good project to support, but that we shouldn't feel pressured to buy anything – we didn't! But we did get a cold drink and made use of the loos.
Snacks for sale in the shop
Carvings at the rest stop in Sao Do
Embroiderers at the rest stop in Sao Do
A bit further down the road we entered a different province, Quang Ninh. We couldn’t miss this fact as the road here passes through the dramatic Quang Ninh Gate. Huan told us there was a lot of controversy about it, as it cost a lot of money and locals felt there were other priorities more pressing than this vanity project on the part of the provincial government.
The Quang Ninh Gate
We made a longer stop a short distance beyond the gate so that Huan could show us a vegetable farm. We had a stroll between the crops while he pointed out many that were already familiar to us (spring onion, lettuce, cabbage, mint, dill) and a few that were not (a type of kale, Vietnamese mint).
The vegetable farm where we stopped
Buddhists in Vietnam have a strong belief in honouring their ancestors and many like to bury them, or hold their ashes, in plots on their own land rather than in cemeteries or at temples. We had noticed the small shrines that mark their graves dotted around the countryside and this farm was no exception. Nearby, a lady was pulling up baby rice plants that had been started here for later transfer to the paddy fields to finish growing.
Pulling up the small rice plants
Pulling up the small rice plants, and the family shrine
Pulling up the small rice plants
Boarding our cruise ship
We arrived in Halong around midday. Huan and Cheung dropped us off at the cruise terminal, which was somewhat chaotic. We had to complete a special health declaration form because of the coronavirus scare, and soon after that we were called to board the Dragon Legend 2. Our group was led to a couple of tenders where we were required to put on life jackets for the short ride to the boat, which seemed to me to be one of the largest of those moored here (she has 24 cabins).
The harbour at Halong
Approaching the Dragon Legend II
Welcome on board!
We were welcomed on board with a glass of hot ginger tea and given a briefing about safety and another about the programme for our short cruise. Then it was time to go to our cabin, which was lovely - attractively furnished and decorated, with a large window from which to enjoy the views, and an equally well-appointed bathroom with both tub and shower.
In our cabin
We settled in and then went up to the deck to take some photos as we started to sail - the first of far too many we would take over the next 24 hours!
Boats leaving the harbour
Chris at the prow of the Dragon Legend II
Sailing through Halong Bay
I also shot a short video which I think gives a better idea of the sheer number of rock formations that surrounded us as we made our way through the bay.
Lunch was served on this deck; it was a little chilly but nice to be sitting out in the open air. There was a set menu - we thought at first that we needed to choose one of the four main course dishes but no, all were served to each table. The food was pretty good - I especially liked the salad and the sea bass, but the ginger chicken was a little too salty.
Table set for lunch, and menu
Banana flower salad
After lunch we took some more photos as we sailed out of Halong Bay and round into neighbouring Bai Tu Long Bay. Selective Asia had recommended this cruise because it sails into Bai Tu Long Bay, the bay immediately to the east of Halong Bay. It looks very similar to, and just as picturesque as, Halong Bay itself but fewer boats go there and although we certainly didn't have it to ourselves, there were more local fishing boats than cruise boats.
Fishing in Bai Tu Long Bay
In Bai Tu Long Bay
Later we relaxed in the cabin for a short while. Around 3.00 p.m. we dropped anchor near some of the karst islands and there was a choice of activity - either kayaking or a ride on one of the tenders. We chose the latter, as we're not experienced kayakers and weren't sure we could keep up with the group, and also thought it would be much easier to take photos from the boat.
Kayakers in Bai Tu Long Bay
The Dragon Legend II from the tender
Rock formations, Bai Tu Long Bay
The ride lasted about an hour and despite the dull weather gave us some excellent views of the karst formations, as well as local fishermen at work. We saw some squid boats with banks of lights to attract the creatures at night, and smaller boats with fishing nets as well as one couple who seemed to be fishing for shellfish along the edge of the rock formations, with small nets such as we might use in a rock pool.
Fishing for shellfish
The light improved a little towards the end of our ride as the sun attempted, but failed, to break through the clouds.
Afternoon light and squid fishing boat, Bai Tu Long Bay
We were back on board by late afternoon and spent some time sorting through all those photos in our cosy cabin. Meanwhile the ship sailed to the spot where we were to anchor for the night. Despite being in quieter Bai Tu Long Bay, there were a small number of others at anchor in the immediate area around us, including our boat's sister ship, the original Dragon Legend. Nevertheless it still felt quite remote to be moored there as darkness started to fall.
Evening at anchor
We went up on the top-level sun deck at 6.00 PM for 'sunset cocktails' – I put sunset in quotation marks because on this gloomy day there was no sunset! But my mojito was excellent, and it was nice to watch the lights of the boats moored nearby as it got darker.
Boats at anchor, Bai Tu Long Bay
Dragon Legend I at anchor near us
Night falls on Bai Tu Long Bay
Dinner was served on the outside deck where we had eaten lunch. I had thought it might be cold, but with my fleece on and one of the ship's blankets around my shoulders I was snug enough. We enjoyed the food, which was as plentiful as it had been at lunchtime, washed down with a Halong beer (what else?!)
Squid cake and king prawn with sticky rice
The chef had excelled himself with some wonderful vegetable carvings and he and all the other crew were presented to us by name so that we could show our appreciation. After the meal some of the crew put on a little show - two musical pieces and a magic trick that unfortunately went wrong.
Chef's vegetable carvings
We could have gone to watch squid fishing off the back of the boat but decided instead to make the most of the lovely cabin by spending a bit of time there, before an early night. The boat was to remain anchored all night, so we looked forward to a peaceful sleep with no engine noise - and no roosters!