Ha'Long Bay is breathtakingly beautiful even on a dreary day as it was on our arrival. Filled with hundreds of tiny to small sized islands that raise straight up from the sea. The Vietnamese legends state that these islands were caused by a dragon spitting out towards the sea to deter attacking Chinese ships many centuries ago. The resulting islands were so numerous and so confusing that the Chinese ships could not penetrate the islands to arrive at the coast of mainland Vietnam.
Ha'Long Bay opens to the Gulf of Tonkin. This is very, very close to the border between China and Vietnam. The water is fairly shallow in the islands of Ha'Long Bay. Many places are less than one meter deep during mean low tide. It appeared that most of the area is now designated as a national park.
As I stated in a previous posting, we had booked a 3 day cruise with http://www.indochinasails.com/en/our-junks.html The small bus arrived at our hotel right on schedule at 0745 Thursday morning. We made the rounds of several other hotels in the Old Quarter of Hanoi picking up additional guests and soon were out of the city for the 3+ hour drive to Ha'Long Bay. There was a short stop half-way at a facitlity selling marble statues of varying sizes and all sorts of art works and goods manufactured by disabled persons. It appeared that there was housing on site for the disabled people. Probably the main reason we stopped there is that it appeared the bus drivers are provided with a free meal in exchange for bringing tourists to the shops. We weren't interested in purchasing any marble statues, but there were postings on the wall showing many large statues shipped to destinations all over the world.
The small bus arrived at Ha'Long Bay slightly before noon --- and right at low tide. The tide was so low that we were unable to board the tender at the normal Indochina Sails location, and had to go down to the large crowed main tourist debarkation point where there were steep stone steps down to the exposed sand where we boarded the barge-like tender.
There were literally hundreds of junks of all sizes in this huge bay. This is quite a tourist operation! We had no idea there were so many junks operating for tourist cruises. Some were for day trips only, but more than half were for overnight cruises. Soon we were on board the Indochina Sails junk we had booked. Never did learn the name or number of the particular Indochina Sails junk that we were assigned.
Our 3-level junk looked exactly as shown on the company website. We had booked a room with a double bed. Turned out that there were only 2 such rooms on this particular junk and both were on the lower main level at the bow of the boat. We could walk out of our cabin door and direct onto the deck at the bow, then up a flight of stairs to the dining room and bar, or up another flight of stairs to the top level sun deck. I liked the location of our room.
The window hangings were beautiful embroidered silk and the room was nicely decorated. The bathroom was extremely luxurious for a boat. There was even a ceramic vase with fresh roses in the bathroom. We have been on large cruise ships and those bathrooms were cramped and tiny. This bathroom had marble walls and floors and a very large shower with glass doors. The bathroom had a normal household toilet, not a marine toilet. It even flushed just like a normal household toilet rather than using an electric flush.
This cabin was like being in a hotel room rather than a boat. The room was very spacious. There was no feeling of movement whatsoever. You would never have known you were in a boat floating on water....except when another boat would pass close by and create a minute wake to cause our boat to quiver and rock once or twice ever so slightly......never enough to even upset the vase of flowers on the bathroom marble countertop. The room was equipped with its own air-conditioning and heating unit.
And were we ever glad to have that heating unit! A cold front had blown down from China the previous night and it felt cold to those of us more accustomed to living right on the equator. The sales info for this cruise had suggested packing a jacket because the weather in Ha'Long Bay can turn cold at any time, but we didn't want to lug around jackets for a couple of weeks just on the off-chance we might need them for 2 or 3 days. So we had no jackets. In fact, neither of us had anything with long sleeves to wear. Oh well, live with it. It only meant we might be cool for a couple of days.
There were a total of 20 guests on the junk for our cruise. Upon arrival we were escorted up to the dining room and served welcoming tea. Then a short description of what we would be doing for the rest of the day. And then we were served a 6-course lunch! This was a surprise. I had assumed the food served would be pretty basic considering where we were. Wow! What luxury! Each course was beautifully plated, adorned with flowers and decoratively cut vegetables. Very well done and everything tasted delicious. I told our waitress that I would love to know how they made the triple flowers out of carrots. She told me it was very easy: their chef just used a small knife. Well, glad that technique was cleared up. I just need to use a small knife and I too can make intricate triple flowers out of carrots.
The first anchor stop was at a gorgeous spot between many tiny islands. We were offered the option of either going to the pretty beach or to climp the 427 steps up to the observation point. Uh, thanks; but no thanks. Way too cold to go to any beach. And climbing 427 steps (with one rest point at 210 steps) for the opportunity of taking photos was a no-brainer. Let the more athletic tourists have their jaunt up those steps. The view was pretty enough down here. The tour guide also said we could go kayaking if we wanted to, but that there would be a much better opportunity for kayaking somewhere else the next day. Get in a kayak in this cold weather? Yeah; sure. We opted to stay on the boat and absorb the beautiful scenery.
Several other junks arrived and anchored nearby. Many of them raised their sails while at anchor. This created good photo opportunities. Obviously, this is the normal procedure with these junks and causes no problems to have raised sails while anchored because often there is absolutely zero wind here. It was very overcast and gray, but it was still beautiful.
Soon we were underway again. Next stop was the largest floating fishing village in Ha'Long Bay. These people live on tiny boats year round. The islands are inhospitable as they are just huge rocks covered with scant soil.....barely enough soil to support the sparse vegetation. No one lives on the islands. The only inhabitants of the islands are in the floating villages.
As soon as our barge-tender arrived several sampans bumped in the sides and held on while trying to sell us various things ranging from pearls to shells to oreos to warm beer or cokes. You almost wanted to buy things just to support the poor population, but we resisted. Last thing we need are pearls or shells, and the junk served so much food for lunch that we didn't want oreos or warm beer.
There was one very small boy sitting by himself in a small sampan. He looked about 2 years old. His older brother (looked about age 7) had paddled out. As soon as he reached our tender the older brother had stepped out of his sampan into another sampan right up against the tender, leaving the small boy all alone. He looked so cute and seemed so comfortable in the little boat all by himself. I wondered what would happen if he should fall into the water, but there were so many people around that he probably wasn't in any real danger. Notice how sure-footed he appears to be while standing on the seat of the sampan in the photo at left, taken in front of the floating village elementary school.
This floating village was tucked up into a deep bay and protected by high mountainous islands on 3 sides, with tall rock formations blocking the middle of the open end of the bay. This would be an ideal location for safety during a storm as they were totally protected from the open sea. A very beautiful spot. The guide said there was a fresh water source on one of the nearby islands. The 2-3 meter tidal range twice daily helped keep the water in the bay from becoming polluted from the waste of the village inhabitants. They had sampans going around with nets collecting any floating garbage in an effort to keep their waters clean.
We returned to the junk and motored to another anchorage for the night. Dinner was buffet style and just as delicious as the lunch. Later in the evening we watched the 2002 movie "The Quiet American" starring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser, which supposedly depicts how the USA became involved in Vietnam in 1954 with CIA support.