Let’s just say that our Halong Bay Excursion was about as tumultuous and ambiguous as the grey, choppy South China Sea waters . All started well with a reasonably dry and warm day on our 4 hour drive from Hanoi to Halong. And that was about as straight forward as things were going to get. Just as we were pulling into the bay, we received a phone call from the incredibly helpful staff from Tonkin Travel who informed us that port authority would only verify at 3pm if the boat could set sail because of windy weather conditions. A bit of a spanner in the works but we took it on the chin, had a delicious buffet lunch on board the docked ship and saw our cabins – luxurious and fully equipped with slippers and robes. A blustery, gusty but warm hour to relax after lunch on the deck and we were given the by-then predictable news that the ship won’t not be setting sail. A real disappointment as this was one of the key moments that we had all been anticipating. And so arose an influx of cameras whilst we all tried to maximise our photo opportunity of the bay.
The smaller transfer boats, which when sailing, were reminiscent of the somersault-like rides I always hated going on in theme parks as a child, arrived to collect us and Mum and sibling ended up occupying the last 2 spaces. Not a problem as we were assured the 2nd boat would arrive in no time. You can imagine our surprise (and theirs) therefore when just as we assembled our belongings and got our life jackets on, my eavesdropping ears detected some fellow tourists mentioning that the trip was back on, then confirmed by the staff. An hour of overpriced text messaging between the 3 of us at sea and Mum and sibling on land and back they arrived. Finally we set sail. Ahoy hoy. Missing out on some of the organised tours but applause and relief all round that this key element of our holiday was back on – and all the more appreciative and awe-inspired by the beauty of Halong Bay as a result. There are hundreds of limestone rocks, bearing semblance to numerous little islands dotted around in the water and as many describe it, suggestive of dragon’s teeth. If you look closely at the rock formations and patterns, you may spot faces, expressions and animal figures.
There are a variety of junk boats, catering for different specifications and budgets. We travelled on Jasmine Halong, a wooden and well-equipped boat with good-humoured, professional and friendly service. Please forgive my unintentional and predictable pun but they do literally run a tight ship. The visits to the caves and fishing village unfortunately had to be cancelled due to the late departure of the boat but after a lovely dinner-time feast, we settled down on board the comfortable car to a few beers, Vietnamese coffees and a family game of Gin-Rummy. Sleep opinion was divided – hubby and I slept like logs and woke up sprightly for 7 am Tai Chi on the deck – sibling was less taken with the loud rickety, rumbling of the anchor throughout the night. There was a short pit-stop the following morning at the unimpressive man-made beach (there is an uphill hike you can do if the beach does not interest you but it gets very slippery so bring walking shoes) and another brunch feast ended our voyage. Halong Bay, from my own experiences and those of friends, is a misty, grey sight and the mythical blue skies and jade waters you see in professional photographs seem to be something of a rarity. There is a magnificent eeriness, though, to the vision of the dark, animal-like boulders, casting shadows in the leaden skies, as if asserting their position in history and reflecting back memories with each ray of moonlight of times gone by, of hardship, war, resilience.