After having spent two days exploring the sights and sounds of (at times) chaotic Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, it was time to slow the pace down a little.
I had booked a 2 day 1 night cruise to Bai Tu Long Bay; a less traversed and quieter alternative to its more popular neighbour – Ha Long Bay. Yep. I was on my way to where a mama dragon said goodbye to her children.
What was that, you’re thinking? – Let me explain.
Legend has it that millions of years ago a gigantic mother dragon dropped numerous eggs after descending onto Ha Long Bay (meaning “Descending Dragon”). From these eggs hatched the thousands of rocks and islands which can be seen littered across the area today. The mother dragon’s tail extended far out to the sea forming Bach Long Vi Island (meaning “The Tail of the White Dragon”). As she returned to heaven, she said goodbye to her offspring at Bai Tu Long Bay (meaning “The dragon parts the offspring”).
See. I’m not completely crazy…
Over the next two days I’d be enjoying the pleasures that only cruising could provide. Well, at least that’s what I had envisaged as this would be the first major cruise I’d have been on, having been on a sailing vessel for no longer than a few hours previously.
An early start to my day was in order as I waited to be picked up from my hotel before being ushered away into a van. This is where a group of other would-be cruisers and I met before setting off on the three and a half hour journey to Hon Gai Harbor in Ha Long City to finalise paperwork at the cruise company’s office.
After formalities, we hopped on a tender boat which took us out to our patiently waiting vessel – a traditional wooden junk – and our home for the next 24 hours or so.
The vision of setting sail in Vietnam’s northeastern waters would soon be realised as I gazed upon this majestic beauty of a vessel.
Upon boarding everyone enjoyed a welcome drink, received our cruise briefing and checked-in to our cabins before setting off on our voyage.
The anticipation of things to come was slowly feeding my enthusiasm. But first it was time to feed my stomach! A light Vietnamese meal was on the menu for lunch – a good start to whet my appetite.
As we slowly navigated through these calm waters, our first excursion was soon to arrive. We were heading to Vung Vieng Fishing Village.
I was looking forward to this excursion more than any other on the itinerary. A real-life floating village – this was sure to be one of the more interesting places I’ve been.
A local Vietnamese lady eagerly waits for us (her new passengers) to arrive. I tentatively entered her sampan (a flat bottomed boat used traditionally for fishing) with three others and put on my orange life vest before being rowed out to the village. Other guests had opted to kayak the journey there.
Inhabitants of Vung Vieng, formerly known as Cap De, have coexisted with the sea and resided in this area long before tourists started to arrive – with some families having lived here for generations.
For the more than 200 fishermen, women, children and their canine companions – this is home.
The village is comprised of numerous floating houses and buildings, settled on water some 24 kilometres out from the nearest mainland.
It’s inconceivable to me to think that people could live life in such circumstances without the many modern conveniences we take for granted on a daily basis. Drinking water in the village, for example, is limited and brought in by row boats from a larger vessel each week.
There is one thing I do envy about the local residents though – they have a pretty awesome view to wake up and go to sleep to.
There is only one school in Vung Vieng; an elementary school. Most children have to make their daily commute to class by boat. I happened to witness this first hand when I captured a photo of a young boy rowing across the bay from the school building.
This was quite a peculiar sight to me and I was taken by surprise at what I was witnessing. I don’t even know how to row a boat and here I am observing a young child row this boat with great efficacy.
Children are only able to attend school in the village for a few years and would need to continue school on the mainland if their parents so wish – this however, is a rarity.
A number of cruise companies who visit the village suggest guests donate items such as colouring books, notebooks, pencils and other small gifts to the school children. I had brought some stationery gifts and am so grateful I did. Seeing the happiness on the faces of these rambunctious children made my day.
Apart from the school, there were other areas of the village to explore. We took a short visit to the local Pearl Farm to learn how natural pearls are grown and I even witnessed a pearl extraction demonstration.
I also saw a number of small fish farms – an effort by local families to grow a sustainable source of seafood.
After exploring the village, we were back on the sampan and headed for the gap in the large limestone karst in front of us, known as the Vung Vieng Village Gate, where we would be able to take some photos.
What a magical experience.
I peered through the arched opening and continued to observe countless karsts sitting in the glistening water.
After our brief but memorable excursion, we headed back to our sampans where we were returned back to our vessel for some swimming in the bay prior to sunset. I passed on this activity in order to prepare my camera equipment for sunset, which was fast approaching.
What a magical scene.
The sun gently disappeared over the horizon like a dark curtain falling down on the thousands of karsts dotted around this mystical landscape.
And you know what? The beauty of the moment didn’t end there. As soon as the sun went down it really hit me how quiet Bai Tu Long Bay was at night.
The bay was already naturally quiet but there was something about being alone with one’s self surrounded in almost complete darkness that makes you realise how truly quiet a place is. The silence was almost deafening – but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I loved it!
In the distance you could make out the fickle twinkling of lights coming from only a handful of other boats anchored in the bay for the evening.
It was for these moments I was glad I had decided to come here. Having not taken a cruise on Ha Long Bay before, I can’t comment on the tranquility of that area. However, as this was the lesser known of the bays, I’m fairly confident I made the right choice.
Light music and entertainment was put on as the evening was officially introduced.
Just prior to dinner everyone had the chance to participate in a Vietnamese cooking demonstration where we made spring rolls. Fortunately, I wasn’t too terrible at this. Not great, but not terrible.
After dinner it was time to try my luck at squid fishing! ‘Luck’ being the operative word here…
I had never fished before. Let’s just say…I stunk at it.
So to summarise – I can’t row a boat and I can’t fish. I’m not exactly painting a flattering picture of myself here, am I?
I could see several squid luminously pulsating in the water below, tempting me, teasing me to try and catch them but I just could not seem to reel them in. It’s sufficed to say that it is much easier to catch Pokémon than it is squid!
Here is a photo of two different varieties of squid one of the crew members caught with much ease. He wouldn’t mind if I took the credit and pretend that I caught these squid would he…?
A rather exciting, eventful and tiring day came to a close. I called it a night and slept like a baby.
I woke up slowly the next morning (to my blaring phone alarm) in a gloomy state – the realisation that there was only but a few hours left of my journey in Bai Tu Long Bay dawned on me.
The junk was now already headed back in the direction of the mainland as we set out to Bo Hon Island in Ha Long Bay where Hang Sung Sot (meaning “Cave of Surprises“) laid waiting for us to explore.
The cave was discovered by French explorers in 1901 and is one of the more popular attractions in the bay and is filled with unusual rock formations highlighted by different coloured lights.
Such formations include a Buddha and large tortoise, but the most popular and recognised formation is that of a massive phallus lit by a pink spotlight. Situated in the cave’s second chamber, the penis-shaped rock is a fertility symbol to locals.
Just outside the cave is a viewing area where stunning views are to be had across Ha Long Bay. The lookout provided a last opportunity to gawk at this beautiful part of the world before returning to life on the mainland.
All activities on our cruise were now completed and we were back onboard and asked to pack our items prior to disembarkation on our final journey back to shore.
Our ride back to Hanoi would be an indirect one however, as we made an obligatory shopping stop (part and parcel of many tour operators in Asia) at a tourist souvenir warehouse selling arts and crafts, carved statues and all sorts of other souvenirs.
Once back inside the van, the drive back to Hanoi allowed me to reflect on the brief but unforgettable sojourn to Bai Tu Long Bay.
These past two days had come and gone so quickly but the memories will remain with me for a lifetime. I can only wait in anticipation until the next time I can explore this region of Vietnam again. When I do, I’ll be sure to spend longer cruising this magical part of the world.
[Cue the cheesy closing sentence]
Bye Bai! I hope I am not waiting Tu Long to see your beauty again…
2D/1N cruises start from US$198 for a single cabin and US$262 for a double cabin for selected 2017 dates.
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