October 29, 2011 1 Comment
Halong Bay, in North East Vietnam, is a seascape of ~2,000 limestone mountain peaks jutting out of the sea across an area of ~1,500 square kilometres. It’s vying to be included on the list as one of the new 7 natural wonders of the world and it’s easy to see why – it’s spectacular. It’s already heralded as a UNESCO World Heritage site, which has helped clean it up and remove floating litter, excessive fishing etc.
Cruising on Baby Dragon Bay
The local legend is that a dragon formed the fractured landscape before crashing into the sea. Halong translates as Dragon Bay. Beyond the actual Halong Bay (which is the part nearer to the mainland) is Bai Tu Long Bay – Baby Dragon Bay. This is more of the same awe-inspiring scenery stretching out into the Tonkin Sea, with remote floating villages nestled between the craggy peaks housing communities of fishermen – more on them below.
We wanted to go to Bai Tu Long to get away from the hundreds and hundreds of tourist boats that clutter the main routes and we found just that with a 3 day 2 night trip on the Dragon’s Pearl III – part of the fleet operated by Indochine Junk, an upmarket operator at Halong.
The Boat – two staff per person
The boat has 11 cabins for a maximum occupancy of 22, supported by the 13 onboard staff. We got lucky – for our trip there were just 6 of us, looked after by 11 staff….almost 2 staff per person! The boat is modern (under a year old) with 3 decks:– at ‘sea level’ are most of the smart cabins with a generous double bed and shiny chrome en-suites; the second deck has an outside dining area with the air-con bar lounge inside; the upper deck squeezes in 22 sun-loungers on two levels, beneath sheltering parasols and the junk’s main sail and next to the captain’s quarters. So, accommodation-wise it’s fabulous.
Drinks – just add 10%
The food is all-inclusive in the price you pay along with water rations of a small bottle per person per day and refillable glasses of water at meal times (we boarded weighed down with bottles of water because we didn’t want to pay the ridiculous prices they charge onboard). Alcohol onboard is also pricey – double the price you would pay in a town for a small can of beer; cocktails, spirits and wine all cost the same as an upmarket wine bar in Hanoi. There is no happy hour! All drinks are subject to a further 10% tax on top…if you like a drink, like we do, then the pricey drinks menu did take the shine off things a little. Tea and coffee is included at breakfast but other times of day must be purchased.
Hungry? 9 Courses do?
Anyway, back to the food which is without doubt one of the highlights of the trip – fresh fish from the bay, silver service. Our first lunch consisted of 9 courses – albeit where they count the rice, vedge and fish which constitute the climax of the meal as individual courses. A creamy, light, whipped up soup; then salad; tiger prawns with explosive taste; curious oyster cakes that prove a winner; some beef; succulent fish; fragrant rice; crunchy greens, and then fresh fruit. I think that’s nine! A typical lunch, with dinner following the same format. Breakfast is slightly underwhelming in comparison with the main bulk coming from French toast, washed down with the inviting coffee.
Dining in the darkness
The food comes to a memorable climax on the second and final evening when you are whisked away from the comfort of the boat to a cave at the foot of one of the peaks. While you’re busy exploring the depths of the spacious and interesting cave – clearly shaped by the waves of the sea as well as water leaking in and dissolving the limestone – the crew buzz around preparing things and the barbeque that you’re promised beforehand.
As you’re called to sit for dinner you’re presented with a thousand lit candles marking out a path and a heart shape and the words I LOVE YOU spelt-out….all very romantic! The centrepiece is the candle-lit and rose-petal sprinkled table laid out on the pristine white table cloth with polished cutlery and sparkling wine glasses (if only the wine was affordable!). The soundtrack to dinner is the gentle wash of the waves lapping up to the cave entrance. It’s an incredible effect, even with the odd drip of water reminding us we’re in a cave, having dinner! The BBQ’ed fish, chicken, tiger prawns, squid et al are cooked to perfection and all gloriously fresh and flavoursome.
A Special Effect
During dinner they present an eagle the chef has carved out of a watermelon that looks fantastic with feathers fashioned out of little curls of the watermelon’s skin. As we’re admiring the bird, they bring a boat. Not any boat – it’s the Dragon’s Pearl III, a fruit-carved model of our floating home, anchored a few km away. This one is even more intricate with all the details of the real thing – windows, sails, decks. We didn’t eat the boat or the bird and at the end of the evening they seemed to dismantle them ready for the bin…but it was still a special effort that we all appreciated.
Home-brew Whiskey at 10 O’Clock
The other highlight of the trip was the visit to a floating village where the mayor, who governs over the 125 people who live there, welcomed us with a pleasant smokey green tea and then home-brewed whisky from a huge jar that contained ominous floating objects – we were told it was honeycomb. At 10.30 in the morning it wasn’t the easiest drink to knock back but given the chance to buy a bottle I would have done – I enjoyed its subtle warmth with a hint of honey. Upon emptying your cup the mayor instinctively refills it – there’s no stopping him! – until you beg that you’ve had enough! Hic!
Don’t Forget Your Camera
Given all these distractions, the star of the show was still the mind-boggling ever-changing views all around you. Mornings and evenings enhanced the views greatly as the light softened and the colours changed. We enjoyed them from our cabin, from the sun-deck, from the lunch-table – and from kayaks, which enabled us to explore the empty waters. For a couple of backpackers it was an expensive splurge of a trip (we paid $430, excluding the booze bill) but to see something so amazing, to be so far away from the tourist hordes, and to be so well looked after was special. Extraordinarily special.
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