Halong Bay in North Vietnam

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Early morning start at 8.00 A.M., I am collected from my Hanoi hotel by Michael our tour guide. We have a three hour bus trip ahead with a 20 minute break along the way. Along the way, we pass many rice fields, bright green in the sunlight on both sides of the highway. There are two harvests a year in the north of Vietnam and three in the South. A 20 minute stop next for Ruby Emerald store, where all the products for sale are made by handicapped relatives of Agent Orange victims. Through two generations, relatives of the Agent Orange victims suffer handicaps and some have limbs missing. It is a huge store with handicrafts, sunglasses, wallets etc.
Halong Bay has been designated as a UNESCO Heritage Site for its natural beauty. We arrive at Halong City and there are busses dropping of people everywhere near the wharf . Michael gives us tickets for the boat and soon we are aboard the Imperial, a dark wood overnight, double storied junk with attractive sleeping cabins.  Within about 15 minutes we are out in the bay and soon we see the towering limestone cliffs and islands in the distance. Breathtakingly beautiful the magnificent cliffs rising out of the sea, with caves beneath them. Peaceful and a number of sleeping junks on the  sea.
Michael says there are many islands at Halong Bay but only 980 of them have been named. They are primarily named after their shape. Lunch was served on the cruising vessel, a magnificent feast  of  selected fine cuisine including chicken with vegetables, tofu in a delicate sauce, vegetables, onion rings, salad, potatoes,  fish, rice, other dishes and fruit to complete the meal.
Limestone caves – The boat is moored and we go ashore to explore Surprise Cave Michael led the tour through the Surprise cave – as we walked down into the caves enclosure by cobble steps we enter chamber one of the Surprise caves. The view of the stalactites and stalagmites, splendid in the lit chamber takes my breath away.  We walk the steps to the three chambers of the cave, and Michael points out some of the shapes of the formations.
We kayaked around the bay area for around thirty minutes and and it was beautiful to be kayacking with the limestone cliffs in the background – At one of the bays we enjoyed kayaking in pairs and I kayaked with Thu who worked on reception at a five star hotel in Ho Chi Mingh.
Swimming – The junk was stationary in Halong Bay so we swam around  the boat and had to climb so unsafe steps up to the boat. I say unsafe as they were really difficult to hoist myself up on them.
Dinner Food was good – again a great selection of delicious meals.
Karaoke at night after dinner Karaoke was a lot of fun and we all crooned together, a Polish couple, American men – Roger and Richard, Canadian ladies Ann and Charlene and me.
Michael suggested that I stay on the boat, rather than go to Cat Ba Island and stay in a bungalow where they would turn the lights off at 9.00 PM and there would be many mosquitoes. So I decided to stay on the boat for the next day and night and wish that I had not changed my plans and had gone to Cat Ba island.
The first day was good but the second was very boring. Firstly we were told by Michael that we would have to take our luggage off the boat and we protested. So he called his manager and then he told us that we could keep our luggage on the boat.
So we headed off on a small boat not really sure where we were going and eventually we ended up at the pearl farm where we were shown how pearls are farmed. Another cruel procedure on creatures of the ocean. Part of the ovary is cut and they implant a small piece on the oyster. This irritates the oyster and they develop the pearl which is 90% calcification.
Then we travelled to a small bay and lunch was served on the small boat near to a fishing area. Pomme Frites, shellfish, salad, a fish for me, rice, greens, squid and veg. Being alergic to shellfish, the chef cooked me a small fish. Later in the afternoon we travelled to a bay where Kayaks were available and people were invited to get off the boat and either go kayaking or swimming in the sea. I decided to go to Cat Ba Island to see what I had missed. On reflection I wish that I had stayed on Cat Ba Island but not in a bungalow but in the hotel.
I am back on the boat and if I ever did this trip again, I would only do one day. But I would never do this trip again.
There were some issues as follows: No safety training when we arrived on board – we were not told where lifejackets or life rafts were. I finally found mine in a cupboard in my room. Treated as a joke when I asked about safety boats and lifejackets on the bus to Halong Bay. Extremely unsafe step from smaller boat to wharf – broken lower wood and wobbled when we stepped on it. Dirty mat at the foot of stairs No itinerary of what was going to happen during the second day
Told to take luggage off boat and we said no so we were able to leave luggage in cabins until we protested and then told we could.
Michael suggested I not go to Cat Ba as lights go out at 9PM and bungalow would be full of mosquitos. I think that it was just inconvenient to take me there, even though I had paid for the trip and accomodation. Why I was booked in a bungalow by tour company I have no idea. Guys on trip had booked a kayak for trip and kayak not provided for whole day.
Second night staff lighting up a cigarette in the dining room, I had to leave the dining room to avoid having an asthma attack and could not continue talking to the other guests. I had to spend the whole second night in my room to avoid being exposed to cigarette smoke. I returned to the dining room and the staff member was smoking again. One staff member said they would not smoke again. Should not have been smoking inside anyway out of respect to paying customers.
Plants upstairs not watered and used as an ash tray. Lots of butts there. Many things in tattered condition. Filthy mat at bottom of the stairs Only two small safety boats observed on the top deck and they would not be enough for the twenty plus customers.
Regulations for Tourist Boat on Halong Bay – Bai Chai 2008- sign in room. Be ensured all the safe and favourable conditions for receiving and returning passengers. When ship is anchored and tightened, having leading bridges and learning bays.
Guy on smaller boat walking through the inside of the boat with a cigarette – child and adults inside the boat and one allergic to cigarettes. Person preparing food on smaller boat with a cigarette in his mouth while preparing food.
Extremely unsafe step from smaller boat to wharf – broken lower wood and wobbled when we stepped on it.
We all wanted to go walking on an island and the guide never listened to what we wanted. No walking activities, no itinierary and no one knows what we are doing.
Would never do this trip again through a tour guide. Would only do privately. Certainly would not do two days. The second day was extremely boring and an hour in the morning wasted waiting for the transport boat.
Carole Ann Goldsmith
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