The Vietnam Air flight out of Hanoi handed out the latest Wall Street Journal. We have enjoyed the fact that we are traveling and therefore missing most of the US political news. When American politics and our President does come up, we spend a bit of time apologizing and agreeing that we too are scared for the future of the world. But it was nice to get a newspaper in English. And there, inside was a wonderfully well written travel article on how and why to avoid Ha Long Bay in favor of the adjacent national park. It left me wondering how I had managed to have one of the great adventures of my life while this author had clearly gone to the same place and had a much different experience. And there, my friends, lays an interesting truth about travel – being true to your own interests and your own preferences, rather than listening to pundits and bloggers – is probably the best way to spent your time and energy.
We choose the V’Spirit Cruise at the suggestion of the Rendezvous Hotel, where we stayed in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. It had good Trip Advisor reviews so we went with it. It was a fairly expensive adventure ($500 for the four of us – transportation from hotel and back, two days and one night on the boat with all meals and adventures included). The bus picked us up at 8:00am and with a pit stop half way through (with immaculate bathrooms, art pieces from huge to tiny and a couple of cafes) we arrived at Ha Long Bay by 11:30. The Bay is a Unesco Site and has been named one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Today when you visit, people going on cruises are able to skip the not-very-interesting city of Ha Long and go to a new man-made harbor before getting to the city.
Our guide was wonderful and his English good enough to understand the history and information of Ha Long Bay. We had two cabins and split up kids and adults. I thought it was fascinating that there are women who are basically floating markets that come up to the boats offering drinks and snacks. I bought a bottle of wine which I knew would be horrible (brand and sitting the sun for who knows how long) for $15 after negotiating down from $25. As I leaned out my cabin window, waiting for my change, the nice lady pushed for another sale rather than handing over my change. She started at eight beers (really bad HaNoi brand beers) as change, then went up to ten beers. Not even if Bill Drew and Jeff Tonole (my deal old fraternity pals) were with me could I have handled ten beers AND a bottle of bad wine in the short time we were going to be on that boat. So reluctantly she handed back the 200,000VD she owed me, which felt like a victory in itself; I have no idea what I could have done if she had just shrugged and rowed off.
The meals on the boat were crazy wonderful. We had a lunch and dinner the first day on the boat as well as a snack and tea at sunset. Each meal had 10 courses and the food was all fantastic – salads, prawns, squid, grilled fish, rice, beef noodle, soups, etc. Breakfast the next day was continental but we could barely eat a thing we were so stuffed from the day before. And then we got to make our own spring rolls. Oh, and then there was one more lunch.
The two stops were Ti Top Island and Surprise Cave. Ti Top is named after a Soviet astronaut Gherman Titov who visited the island (the Vietnamese don’t have a “v” sound so they turned it into Ti Top). It is a faux beach created as a stopping point where visitors can swim and hike to the top for a great view all around of the Bay (good news is that there is a very clear warning sign not to hike if you are too old or have a bad back). Judi and I hiked to the lookout and then the kids and I took a refreshing swim in the Bay. The sunset was wonderful as one would expect and as the sun goes down, although there are a few dozen boats in the area, a silence sort of comes over the whole of each boat and the magic of that one moment takes over.
Surprise Cave, well…. it surprised me. I am sort of over cave visits – we have seen some great caves in Ireland and in Oregon before this trip and in Waitomo, New Zealand on this trip. But Surprise Cave is true to its name. Maybe it is because my expectations were low but when we entered the third cavern, which is massive and beautifully lit, I was stunned. Our guide did the usual bit of history, obligatory stops at perfect view spots and pointing out of formations that take the imagination of an astronomer to enjoy. But I really did enjoy it. And yes, there were dozens, if not hundreds of other tourists walking along the paths within the caves with us.
After dinner we had a chance to enjoy some squid fishing or “squiding” as we call it. The boat shines a light down off the front of the boat and we were instructed to jerk the lure occasionally in order to try and hook a squid. The four of us did some squiding for quite a while but failed to land a single squid, sadly.
By the end of lunch on our second day, the rains had started and by the time we tendered from the boat back to the main dock it was pouring. We were glad to load into the small bus that would take us back to the Rendezvous Hotel back in Hanoi.
I had to wonder, reading the WSJ article, how our experience was so different from the author of that piece; how can that be? His trip was longer but he saw a lot more trash in the water than we did and was affected by the surrounding boats of people much more than we were. It gave me a momentary pause to wonder if I must have been duped or somehow deceived about our great experience; I mean his take on Ha Long Bay was positively awful. But that is silly of course. We loved it. We loved it for reasons that were not impacted one bit by sharing the Bay with a dozen other boats. I actually felt that we got the best of all of it – we got to see the only sunset just like that one which will ever exist AND we got to share it with other people from Sri Lanka, from Romania and from Australia (and that was just our boat) and with each other. That makes me so much happier than seeing it by myself. We all enjoy travel with our own filters and never let any one, no matter how great they write or where they are published, tell you that you didn’t just have the best time of your life, because they might just be wrong.