Hạ Long Bay trip day 1
Saturday morning early wake up to be picked up at 7:30 and drive all the way to Hạ Long Bay across the murky, gray, drizzly north of Vietnam. We make a rest stop at a ‘stop over’ place, offering clean bathrooms, some snacky food and lots of touristy shopping opportunities. Very obviously a by-product of the Hạ Long Bay tourism success.
When we arrive at the pier we are amazed at the level of professionalism. Although lots of buses are arriving at the same time, there is enough staff at hand to do the check-in as quickly and as painless as possible, we are offered to wait in the nice lounge and get some complimentary tea.
Soon our boat, the Bhaya Classic 1 is ready and we board, while the crew has lined up on the top deck, waving at us and greeting guests with unison yelling of ‘Xin Chao’. Our luggage is brought to our assigned cabins, while we sip our (overly sweet, non-alcoholic) welcome drink and congregate on the restaurant deck for our briefing by the very enthusiastic Mr. Thanh, who goes over the itinerary, safety procedures and introduces the crew.
We enjoy an wonderful buffet lunch and take our sweet time, looking around we only see one other family with annoying loud / misbehaving kids. When we finally go to check out our cabin, we see that the grandparents of those kids have gotten comfortable in our cabin. Before things derail, I try to figure out what their actual cabin is and hope that a simple cabin switch will do, but no, in that cabin the parents and those kids are jumping up and down the bed! I knew at lunch that this family would be trouble.
But we get Mr. Thanh to the rescue and not only makes he sure everyone gets sorted into their cabins, he also has our cabin freshly made up, apologizes profusely, offers us free drinks … but he keeps the best for last: I had been a bit worried about how all 3 of us fit into one 12.5 sqm cabin, I did not see much space for an extra mattress (as we were promised by the cruise operator). Instead, Mr. Thanh tells me (as if this is a big secret) that one cabin is not booked, and we shall have it!
Not only did we get a pretty cool deal for this trip to begin with, now we also get a second cabin, which makes sure we have enough place to sleep and do not have to stumble over each other at night when going to the tiny bathroom!
The view from the top deck as we cruise into the island area of Ha Long Bay is breathtaking and the foggy atmosphere makes everything look like a scene from a Miyazaki movie. It also helps to ignore that every weekend there are about 700+ other boats in the same area. At around 3PM we arrive at the Vung Vieng floating fishing village.
This is a very curious and beautiful place, fishermen have been ‘living’ here for over 100 years, but only in 2000 were they allowed to build more permanent housing floating in the lagoon.
Lady rowers take groups of 3-4 around the whole village in their ‘basket boats’, children along the way are waving at us, we explore an overhanging arch that goes out to the slightly rougher part of the open water. Only thing I was missing was a bit of a narration about what is what, but after this one hour round trip, we get some more details from Mr. Thanh: That the villagers are very conscious about where the trash goes (each boat has a net to catch floaty stuff they encounter), they are strictly forbidden from soliciting money from their guests, there is a school in the village that teaches kids (who learn swimming before they learn walking) basic reading, writing and math. But sure enough I saw many youngsters on their mobile devices, the 3G reception there was pretty good, and TV antennas were all over. Julius asked very amazed ‘how can they have electricity on the water?’ (To which I just pointed at our boat and asked “how do you think we have light on the boat?”)
We returned by tender to our ‘hotel’ and had some free time until the ‘mandatory’ happy our would arrive. Options were swimming and kayaking and Julius was very interested in kayaking. I recall I did that with him a few years ago on a lake in Ethiopia, but he was not big enough for efficient rowing back then. Now, to my surprise, was he not only adding real power, he picked up the rhythm, he had a general feel for how to correct course, when I said ‘now backwards’ he was right on it. And most of all, he had a lot of fun doing all that and enjoyed the speed that we got and that we could go freely here and there to explore. I actually let him out at one tiny beach and he was looking for shells, not noticing that I was paddling away to take a better picture.
Thus we killed another hour and got back, changed and enjoyed some very juicy ‘mocktail’(buy one get one free, so, basically everything is priced double, as after dinner then everything is 30% off) .
There was no real sunset to speak of as we cruised to some sheltered lagoon to anchor for the night. On the way there was even more entertainment: A cooking presentation! They had set up everything on the sun deck to make fried spring rolls. And everyone was invited to roll their own, and Julius was very eager to be the first to give it a try. And while the rolls were fried, we got some more instruction on how to garnish your plate and then we all could eat those fresh spring rolls.
We spent the time waiting for dinner on the top deck while it was getting dark, and I found Julius having a blast playing cards with a young couple, who taught him how to play. That took his mind of balancing all over the ship’s railings.
Soon it was time for dinner and this time it was a sit down affair: first a seafood appetizer platter with 2 oysters and 1 shrimp per person. Since Ritsu is allergic to oysters, I got to eat hers, while she got an extra 4 shrimp. Then came a very typical Vietnamese salad of shredded fruit and veggie topped with more shrimp and on each plate they had written ‘Bhaya’ with balsamico syrup. The main course was either beef in pepper sauce (which we just had last night for dinner) and sea bass in coconut sauce. Dessert was a not-too-sweet passion fruit cream. Everything was fantastic and I can only imagine what a challenge this must be to make all this in a small ship’s galley. On the other hand, I think they make the pretty much very same every night and got really good at it.
Time for bed? No way! Besides watching a movie on TV, there was a the much more interesting activity of night time squid fishing! For that they hang out a light which attracts shoals of tiny squid and if you are patient and lucky and pull your fishing rod at the right time, you get one of those minuscule creatures and and when you get them of from the hook, they will thank you with a nice squirt of black ink.
I am amazed at Julius’ stamina and endurance, but at 9:30 I wanted to call it quits, since the ship’s diesel fumes were getting to me. But not the little man! He wanted to keep going and at some point switched from rod to net (cheating?) and was finally at 10 went to bed very proud that he caught 3 squid in one swoop!