Hanoi - Hạ Long Bay
Early breakfast and a 7am pick up to head off to start the process of getting our local drivers’ licenses, as we cannot use international or Australian/New Zealand licenses in Vietnam.
The bus was about 20 minutes late due to the thunderstorms that had slowed the traffic even more than usual as many people were using their cars instead of scooters and motorbikes.
I took the opportunity on the bus to practice a few important Vietnamese phrases like, hello, goodbye, thank you, two beers please, delicious and cheers.
There were a few nervous comments about the fact that in two days’ time we will have to drive out of Hanoi in this traffic!
30 minutes into our journey the bus made it into 2nd and 3rd gear for the first time. It took much longer that expected to get to the Department of Transport, so we only arrived at 9am but they were quite efficient, and we had our photos taken and paperwork processed in just over an hour for 14 of us.
10:15am and we were on the road to Hạ Long Bay. It wasn’t long until the city was behind us and we were on a very new highway to the coast (only opened a year ago). The highway is lined with all sorts of agriculture; guava and orange groves, bananas and corn.
We had time to talk about wages and the cost of apartments in Hanoi. Yen, who was escorting us said her wages were USD300 per month. An apartment in Hanoi would cost around USD65,000 (AUD94,000), so most people will not own, but rent. Her rent in a share house is USD50 per month for a cheap place. There is no free health care or education, unless you are from an ethnic minority (like the hill tribes in the north). The government will pay USD10 a month plus rice to minority families to encourage them to send their kids to school.
There were a few nodding heads in the bus trip after our early start, recharging the batteries for the boat cruise. There was no sign of the rain stopping during the drive and as we got closer to the coast it started getting heavier!
The limestone karsts started appearing about 30 minutes out from the coast, as did fish farms and shrimp farms.
We made a quick stop a saltwater pearl production farm and had a demonstration of how the pearls are produced. We were then led into a very brightly lit, white showroom with beautiful, but expensive, pearl jewellery. As fond as I am of jewellery, I resisted temptation (those of you who know me can start laughing now…Linda with some drop pearl earrings is probably something you will never see).
Then the rain started bucketing down, but it didn’t last long.
The town of Hạ Long is a glitzy holiday town busy from October to April. It felt a bit like the Gold Coast of Queensland, Australia. There was hardly a car on the road and the infrastructure being built is quite amazing. There are theme parks, a gondola up to a Ferris wheel, water slides and wide streets lined with new palm trees.
The heavy rain ceased as we disembarked the bus and we met Kim, who would be our guide for cruise, and boarded our Dragon’s Pearl junk which looked quite “flash”. It has an open top deck, then a deck with the restaurant and bar and a couple of rooms, then the lower deck with more rooms and the kitchen. That kitchen worked very hard over the next 24 hours and we worked very hard to consume every delight laid on the table in front of us.
As we motored away from the mooring, we were served a welcome drink, received a briefing and met the staff. There were around 11 staff for 16 of us and we seemed to keep them busy.
Then lunch was served - it was a long lunch with many delicious courses. Some of us had a G&T with it - seemed rude not to keep Henry the bar tender busy.
The UNESCO world heritage site Hạ Long Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin or the Bay of the Descending Dragon consists of 1969 limestone islands on the watery landscape, living local life with some small floating villages, deserted sandy beaches, and some wonderful caves.
In the afternoon we visited Sky Beach on a small island that has a limestone cave you can walk through. We were met by a small puppy and other dogs. Even though no one lives on the islands the fishing families that live in their small boats have dogs as pets. We had a short kayak and swim before motoring off again.
There was a lesson on making spring rolls which we later had as part of another huge meal at dinner. The chef baked a cake for Sue’s birthday, but we had all eaten so much that I don’t think anyone had any, but we offered it to the staff – I don’t think there was any left in the morning.
Then, Kim brought out his traditional guitar with two strings. He said he was not a very good singer, but that he enjoyed it. He was right. A few songs later it was bedtime in our comfortable rooms with their own en-suites.