After a year in hiatus (read: being a full time weekend student), I celebrate freedom to travel by taking the next available flight to Hanoi, Vietnam the same day I finished my final exam. I join my father who is on his solo backpacking trip around Indochina. My father arranged a private car to fetch me from the airport at the costs of USD18 (he later realized he could get the same service for USD9).
As I am joining his trip, I am following through his plan. So, we are booked for 2D1N luxury cruise in Ha Long Bay. Another UNESCO World Heritage Site ticked off! If you have been conducting survey on Ha Long Bay, you would agree with me that the price for 2D1N or 3D2N cruise around the isles is beyond backpacking budget range. One is expected to pay between USD40 to USD150 depending on the services offered for cruising at Ha Long Bay.
Tips #1: You have to check what extras you would be getting. Some get free beers on the cruise and some get free massage. You just have to know what are you paying for.
Tips #2 : Scout for good price. The price quoted by your hotel can be the a little expensive if compared to price given by tour agencies at backpackers sector.
Tips #3 : When on board the cruise, refrain from comparing the price with other fellows. Chance is you are paying extra USD20 for the same services. It can be quite disheartening, yo! We had few couples on our junk paying as high as USD85 per pax when we only paid for USD55 per pax. There’s a big difference. This happens when we book through the agents who mark up the price higher than the others.
One factor to consider is whether to take the standard or luxury cruise. I was advised that the luxury cruise takes you further into the islets far from the crowd. Muslim tour offers exorbitant price. If you don’t mind paying double the price for luxury cruise, why not?
As we booked our cruise with Hang Be Travel, located along Hang Be St, we wait for our transfer at the office, which is 2 minutes away from BC Family Guesthouse. Around 9 a.m., the coaster van picks us up and we fill in the empty seats. BC Family Guesthouse or Hang Be St is actually one of the few last pick-up points; be prepared to squeeze yourself into almost full coaster van if you are staying around Hang Be St.
There is no luggage compartment in the coaster van, so I have to put my huge bag on my lap, which is far from convenient. Oh, some passengers put their luggages near the driver seat, but it was full by the time I boarded. The journey takes about 4 hour inclusive of souvenir emporium shopping cum toilet break of 20 minutes somewhere in between.
Our tour guide is Luan aka Handsome, who speaks funny English and likes to pull adult jokes, which are common traits for Vietnamese guides.
4 hours on end, we reach Ha Long International Harbour and my heart skips beats when I spot the cruise ships as seen in advertisements related to Ha Long Bay. They come in different size and style matching with the price we pay for.
Because it is international harbour, we have to take the small shuttle boat to get to our cruise ship despite the fact that the cruise ship is docked very near the land that it is just a hop in.
As we enter the cruise ship from the back rear of the ship, I almost feel we just got scammed. We check-in to our respective cabin and enjoy our luncheon, ie first meal on board the cruise before our cave exploration at Dao Gu Cave Complex.
My father and I request for vegetarian food (though we are okay with seafood), so we get plates of vegetables arriving at our table. We end up sharing our food with the rest.
Each cruise ship tows a small boat to carry the guests for activities. Some carry kayaks for their guests too! When they say the itinerary includes caving activity, I have least expectation that it would be an awesome show cave with creative lighting. Before finding the beautiful truth of the show cave, we have to climb the steps to reach the cave. Quite a climb, really!
Luan, our guide, is such an annoyance for he likes to rush us through the cave when I am enjoying the cave wonderful stalagmites and stalactites. In ancient Vietnamese, Ha Long literally means “descending dragon”. It is related to the legend when the Jade Emperor sent the Mother Dragon and her children descending on earth to help ancient Vietnamese people to defend their newly formed country from invaders from the North. The emeralds from the dragon’s mouth were scattered around the battlefield on the sea and formed as invisible defensive wall which left the enemies’ battleship fleet to sink.
Cave guides are imaginative lot. Maybe it’s human nature that we imagine rock as living creatures.
Next activity is taking bamboo boat to the James Bond Island, which is optional. It means you have to expend extra money for this activity. We paid 130,000 Dong per pax for the ride that takes us to the mouth of the cave and back. There are two caves. I am not sure if that can be considered as cave or not for we enter a karst tunnel to enter an area surrounded by circling karsts.
After completing our James Bond Island visit, our superior junk continues her journey to join other junks of equivalent standing.
Luan invites us for a swim in the water but none of us takes his invites because of the cold weather. We prefer to keep warm on board the junk while waiting for our dinner to be served at 7pm.
Again as a Muslim, food is tricky. Though the tour agent tries his level best to meet our requirements, that night pork is served and we quietly eat our Brahims and Maggi in our room. Lucky, we manage to use our kettle in the room without triggering fire alarm. At the end of the dinner which I sit in on behalf of my father, Luan announces that we get 2 barrels of local beer to last the night. At least 5 guests declare they do not take alcohol, which means the rest get more beer to drink.
My father and I retire to sleep early but we are awakened by loud bang and screams just outside our room. Some drunken girls scream that it is already 7am and we shall get ready for kayaking when in fact, it is only 12 a.m. The commotion continues for at least 30 minutes before we can get back into our slumber.
The next morning, we wake up at 5a.m. in waiting for the sunrise. Beating the cold winter weather at 5 a.m. and hoping that there will be sunrise, I keep on checking on the sun every few minutes. It is at 6.30 a.m. that I resign to the fact that there is no egg yolk sunrise that morning. I continue to sleep and refuse to go for kayaking.
At 8 a.m., we have our breakfast at a table shared with the Korean youngsters. It is not long before we start exchanging stories on how we feel about the commotion last night. I remember one of them chided, “culture different” while another said, “I culture shock”. I have to agree with them, though. I silently wish for travellers to be responsible and reserve reasonable amount of respect to local culture. Some travellers think they can do whatever they want when they are travelling. I am okay with getting drunk, dancing and what-nots. But for making noise in front of our room at midnight, it is definitely intolerable.
As we are required to check-out at 9 a.m. and wait at the eating area until we reach the harbour, we spend the whole morning getting to know one another better. It seems like we have just strengthen the ties between Malaysia and South Korea. Occasionally, we walk to the upper deck to enjoy the cool breeze and the view.
To kill the time, there is spring roll demonstration for which we are given the opportunity to prepare spring rolls.
After eating luncheon, it is time to bid goodbye to everyone and Ha Long Bay.