There's no better way to cure jet lag than having to wake up at 7 am to make sure you don't miss your tour bus! Yep...that's how we roll! 4 sleepy heads up and ready and out the door by 8 am, sitting on the curb and waiting for our bus to Halong Bay.
We booked the tour a few nights ago while we were in the Old Quarter.
Travel Tip: If you are planning to travel to Vietnam, don't waste your time booking your excursions ahead of time. There really isn't any point. There are tons, and I mean tons, of booking offices in Hanoi old quarter where you can just walk around and shop for the best price, and then after that you can haggle some more to bring down that price. This is something you wouldn't be able to do if you booked it online.
Every tour company has different prices, but they are more or less in the same ballpark. We decided to go to Halong Bay and stay overnight on a cruise boat instead of come back to the harbor and stay in a hotel. Transportation, overnight accommodations, 2 lunches, 1 breakfast and 1 dinner, plus tickets to the cave and an English Speaking tour guide, all for $95 per person for adults. Kian was half price and Hannah was free. :) We did negotiate the price down a little bit and got an additional discount too because we booked our excursion to Sa Pa (coming up on November 19th) with the same company.
The Bus Ride
We were picked up right by our apartment. The minibus was packed full of people (16 people not including the guide and the driver) from all over the world. This meant there was barely any room for us, and Kian and Daddy had to sit upfront, next to the driver! Super safe for a 5 year old, especially because there was no real seatbelt! No worries though because like I have mentioned before, these people really know their way around the roads here. Though the distance is about 170 km from Hanoi, the bus takes about 4 hours. This is mainly because for the majority of the time the bus doesn't go more than 45 - 50 kmh (about 30 mph). The ride was more or less very uneventful. We saw some great landscapes as we drove out of Hanoi and learned a few facts from our Tour guide:
- There are ~8 million people in Hanoi.
- The tax imposed by the government on imported cars is very very high, which is why most people in Hanoi own motorcycles.
- The weather in Hanoi is much nicer in June, July, and August. Not as foggy and cloudy! (I should probably note that the Vietnamese people wear winter coats and woolen hats in 70 degree weather. They always ask us why we we are not wearing more clothes!!)
The bus stopped only once at a large rest area where passengers are encouraged to use the restrooms and buy a snack while the buses get washed! All tour buses stop here or at places like these to encourage the tourists to buy furniture, statues, and other souvenirs made here in Vietnam. They even pack and ship them for you. They are pretty pricey though.
Our cruise boat was called Papaya. Once we arrived at the harbor, a smaller boat picked us up and took us to the cruise. We were allowed to check into our room and were asked to check and make sure the lights and water were functional. We had 3 beds and a nice bathroom, and everything seemed in order in our nice room.
Once everyone had had a chance to put their stuff away, lunch was served in the dining hall. This is where most people started to get to know each other. There really isn't a better way to get to know people than over a meal! :) There was a lot of food and the quality was good...not AMAZING, but good enough and it sure filled us up. They even accommodated the diets of a few vegetarians that were on board.
What makes Halong Bay so amazing are the 1,969 islands that dot the landscape as far as you can see. According to our guide, Halong means "descending dragon". The name given to this region goes back to a legend about a dragon that used to roam in these parts. The locals named this bay after the dragon out of respect for him.
After lunch we headed to the "sun" deck to check out the views and although there was no sign of sun anywhere, we were still awed by the incredible views. The water was really that greenish color that you see in the pictures and all the random cliffs were really an incredible sight. There were so many of them!!
The cruise boat dragged along the small boat (that we had used to get from the harbor to the cruise), which got back on for our trip to land. There were life vests for everyone, even a smaller size for the kids, and wearing them was mandatory on the small boat. On the way we saw more views. Oh the view, the views, the views.....amazing!
Hang Sung Sot
We made a stop at an island to see the Sung Sot Cave. There was a long line leading up to the cave, but it moved very quickly. The name translates into Cave of Surprises.
And surprised we were (not sure why I am channeling in Yoda here)! The formations in the cave were not as remarkable as some of the ones we have seen in other caves, but the vastness... oh my goodness, I have never seen such a large cave before!
The trip out of the cave was also very scenic, as you don't go back the same way you entered. Our little photographer, Kian, took a great picture of mommy and daddy with the gorgeous view. Oh and don't worry bout the hanging feet (in the first picture below), it's just rocks! Isn't that crazy?
I don't know if the island we stopped at after the cave has a name, as only 989 of the 1,969 islands have been given names. If it does, I didn't catch it. We were told that we could either swim or head up the steps to the top of the island for amazing views (if you look closely in the picture of the beach you can seen the steps between all that greenery, right in the middle).
We of course headed up the steps, as we love a good hike (trekking as they called it). There were so many steps on the way up! We reached the top nice and sweaty! Phew...what an exercise, but wow...what a great view!
Once we got back down, we had to check out the beach for a few minutes because our little beach girl couldn't possibly get on the boat without dipping her toes in the water. We were actually really surprised at how warm the water was!
By the time we returned to our cruise boat, it was completely dark outside. We ended the evening with a lesson on how to make Vietnamese spring rolls, eating dinner, and few fun group activities. Can you hold up two forks and another toothpick on a single toothpick? We know the "trick" now, but surprisingly there's nothing all that tricky about it, anyone can do this! Oh, and of course some Karaoke.
A fun and exhausting day! Tomorrow, we are going to check out a pearl farm before heading back to the harbor.
Lights out. Good Night.