Monday, April 18, 2011

Halong Bay, Vietnam (2008)

We got woken up the next day by the hotel staff at 4am; they had been trying to wake up room 402 and accidentally dialed us in 502. We were cranky but were able to get a few more hours of sleep before heading down to breakfast at 7:30am. The menu had several options on it, and we thought we could only choose one per person, but then we saw other people ordering multiple items. Anyway, Danny had pho and I had a crepe.

Our tour company (Huong Hai Junks) arrived to pick us up at 8:30am, and we started on our 3 hour bus ride to the docks at Halong Bay. There were a total of eight tourists on our bus, plus a few people who seemed to be with the tour company. One couple was from Columbus, Ohio; they were very talkative and friendly. Another couple was French-Vietnamese; the woman lived in LA and the man in Toulouse. The last couple was from Oregon, with a daughter living in California, so they were excited to learn that we were from the Bay Area too.

We finally arrived at the dock around noon, having made really good time. In fact, our driver was beyond crazy; he spent more time in the passing lane than in our lane. We were greeted by the sight of tons of tourists, and correspondingly many boats. We were checked off a list and herded onto a small boat with about 10-15 other people. Then, that boat tied up with our actual junk, and we hopped on board.

Our room turned out to be quite nice; although the "shower" was basically the entire bathroom. After dropping off our bags, we went upstairs to the dining room for lunch, where we were served juice, some wine (sweet and light), fresh shrimp, steamed clams, steamed crab, fried battered sweet potatoes, cooked cabbage, fried fish, sauteed squid and vegetables, and rice.

We set sail while we were eating, and I kept popping out to grab some photos, because the views were gorgeous.

After awhile a staff guy came by and said something about kayaking and changing. I thought he meant me, but stuck to my capris and tevas. It turned out that he meant himself, since he soon reappeared in a T-shirt and warmups, instead of his uniform. D and I were the only ones who had chosen the kayaking option, so when we stopped at the kayak shop we hopped off and the rest of the boat continued on to the beach. We kayaked around for about 30 minutes, and then rejoined the rest of the group on the beach, from which we climbed up some stairs to a pagoda with a great viewpoint.

Afterwards, we got back into our kayak and paddled to Luon Cave, past the Man's Head Island, Tortoise Island, a "goat" shaped rock and some other interesting formations. We ended up paddling for a good two hours, and then climbed back on the boat for a shower.

We had about an hour before dinner so we just sat around chatting with our fellow passengers as we watched the sun set on the bay. It was amazingly beautiful. One couple was from Paris, and other from Denmark. Another seemed to be speaking German, but I couldn't tell for sure. Several of them had personal tour guides with them.

For dinner, we had vegetable soup, giant fresh shrimp (even larger than at lunch), a cucumber salad, crabs stuffed with a crab mixture (very yummy!), fried calamari, fish cooked with tomatoes and onions (reminded me of escabeche, almost), and chicken sauteed with carrots and beans. We were amazed at the quality of the meals; all fresh seafood was delicious.

Afterwards we hung out on the upper deck for awhile enjoying the twilight, but soon went to bed, as there were mosquitoes around.

The second day of our tour started when we were called for breakfast around 7am. It was a continental breakfast; baguettes and pastries with jam and butter. Afterwards we were taken to a cave which was gorgeous and very well marked with displays. We took tons of photos there.

We got back on board around 9:30am and checked out so the staff could clean the room for the next group, who would come on as soon as we'd disembarked. We were served "brunch" around 10am; it started with ham and fried eggs, french fries, shrimp with veggies, fried squid, spring rolls, radishes and cabbage, and more. We got back to shore shortly after we finished eating, and got off just before noon.

We got back on the bus for our ride back to Hanoi, but halfway back we stopped for 30 minutes at a rip-off souvenir sweatshop warehouse-type place. It was really annoying there, but the drivers insisted we had to stay the full time despite the fact that no one was buying anything. We arrived back in Hanoi around 3:30pm, and checked back into our hotel. To our surprise, we were given a free room upgrade, from a standard ($35) room to a superior ($50) room! We guessed it was probably because of the 4am wakeup call fiasco. The room was a huge upgrade; it was much much larger and slightly nicer as well.

We stopped by the seamstress to pick up my ao doi, and then went back to Quan An Ngon for dinner (we'd gone to the branch in Saigon on our first night in Vietnam). We ordered bun bo hue (beef noodle soup; very spicy and very good), BBQ beef with salt and chili (also too spicy for Danny, but I loved it), and glutinous rice balls with mung bean (turned out to be similar to Chinese sesame balls). We'd learned that the "che" dessert drinks were delicious, so we ordered two: black bean with coconut, and jelly, tapioca, water chestnut, and pomegranate seed. Once again, everything was excellent.

Afterwards we went to check out the night market. We stayed there for a good hour and a half, and bought some cute souvenir magnets, Vietnamese cookies, postcards, bookmarks, and T-shirts, before heading home.

On our last day in Vietnam, we had a morning flight, so we didn't have much time after breakfast. We spent a little time walking around the area immediately outside our hotel, and bought one more silk embroidery picture, before catching the hotel car to the airport. We connected through Taipei and had just enough time to eat some beef noodle soup and pick up some Taiwanese pineapple cakes and sun cakes, before flying the rest of the way home.

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