Videos and Travel Writing from a Halong Bay overnight cruise in Vietnam. Also see the photos from Halong Bay (Ha Long Bay). If you plan to visit Vietnam, Hanoi and Halong Bay, see the links to travel tips at the bottom of the page.
Shuttle bus from Hanoi to Halong Bay (Ha Long Bay)
Linger about the sidewalks of the hostel district, watch people and roam around camera in hand. Buy some snacks from a huddled up old woman. At long last a shuttle bus pulls in front of the designated hotel.
Not in a great mood. The idea of hopping into a shuttle full of foreigners and being herded along to Halong Bay and pushed into a cruise boat, in order to see the country’s most popular tourist attraction, is one that I disagree with. More or less fundamentally.
Though it’s invariably, and increasingly, difficult to fully evade the grasp of touristic infrastructure when visiting a foreign country, it is by en-large possible to do so on one’s own terms, and in the company of local people of one’s choosing, and more so, of one’s liking.
Worse, having committed to this plan while drunk does little to reassure me as to the soundness of our decision. We’ve heard that Halong Bay scams and shabby cruise boats abound.
Everybody on the shuttle bus is tired from having risen early. It’s hot. Very hot. We’re lucky there’s intermittent air-conditioning. The passengers are quick to fall asleep though.
About halfway through the trip, an angry and sweaty tourist awakes to find the air-conditioning has been turned off (no doubt as a cost-saving measure).
Perhaps this is what makes me the most uncomfortable about this Halong Bay Cruise Boat operation. It’s the overwhelming sense of crooked commercialism that has pervaded all of our interactions with the Vietnamese locals of Hanoi who work in this segment of the tourism industry, coupled with the masses of eager and unsuspecting people who make it possible.
It’s fairly obvious that, for the most part, the hotel managers, bus drivers, conductors and others care little about the well-being of their customers, even less so about their satisfaction.
I’ve begun to wonder whether there may be deeper causes to this antagonizing treatment, ones that are rooted in residual hate against foreigners since even before and only further fueled by the Vietnam War, especially here in North Vietnam (it was the South that was defended by the Americans and barely two generations have passed since, not enough to heal the deep scars left by War, or to erase the memories forged by propaganda and the loss of loved ones.)
But I have no confirmation of this inkling as of yet; skipping slightly ahead in the account, and based on other encounters in southern Vietnam, I have reason to believe this assessment is at least partly accurate.
In fact, ensuing conversations demonstrate other visitors suffered similar treatment in Hanoi. One such naïve couple, fresh off the plane from the UK, was looking for a cab ride when a pushy driver beckoned them onto his rickshaw. Unsure as to what was happening, they were then taken for a ten-minute rickshaw ride around the lake.
Literally around the lake, only to be dropped off at their starting point and a few pounds lighter, and left to seek another cab ride.
Hanoi and Halong Bay Vietnam Video:
Boat Tour, Halong Bay Overnight Cruise (2 days and 1 night)
At long last the karst mountains populating the dreams of feverish travelers appear on the horizon.
A modern ferry terminal. Ushers man-handle the dizzying flow of tourists. Dozens of rustic-looking ferry boats line the pier, and we’re driven to one.
Life vests are duly handed out. The travelers stir uneasily. Everybody is somewhat apprehensive. Everyone wants to enjoy paradise. And there’s the very real probability that a third of the people here will not get the experience they bargained for.
The engine putters and the ferry boat glides forth. We smile at the other passengers, discovering our shipmates. A blond-ish British couple. A German mid-aged man and his Asian wife. A Vietnamese businessman and his wife or mistress, who’s been here several times before.
Everybody is eyeing the fleet of ships lulling on the water, eager to find out which one is destined to us – whether it will be the promised dreamy cruise boat or a crackled piece of cardboard.
The result is somewhere in between.
The Vietnamese crew welcomes us aboard. Young, a bit fresh. The organizer tries to infuse a ‘party feel’. Fortunately there’s a mix of mid-aged couples and some younger people; the atmosphere is social but timorous. To my liking.
There’s one younger woman, who’s traveling solo. The organizer resolves it’ll be her he’ll try to sleep with.
The cabins are donned in good taste, and Coco and I ease in to the interiors, although we find ourselves close to the back and the engine room. I remain watchful though – unduly so perhaps.
The organizers soon call us out for a meal. Seafood, heaps of it, tasty, even festive. You can sense people’s relief at their experience so far. The organizers coax us into a round of drinks, then another.
It’s agreeable. But I feel a bit trapped. I don’t like this kind of setup: I’ve always been averse, and indeed have grown increasingly resistant, to organized tours which often result in meeting more other like-minded travelers rather than the people and places one’s come to visit.
Mind you, part of the joy of traveling is meeting other people and cultures, be it travelers or locals. And I’ve spent a fair share with both, and have learned from their well-versed views of the world. This is a mere matter of personal preference and inclination, rather than a sweeping statement on how to travel and discover the world.
With that said, I don’t care to reminisce too much about the experience on the ship. Coco would probably remember the details better than I would.
What’s Your Philosophy of Life? interview with crew member:
There’s a fisherman’s village, inhabited by boat-dwellers. There’s a boat-house made of bricks. I can’t imagine how it would float.
We kayak. Coco is a more apt paddler than I am. The water’s reflection scintillates onto the cave’s ceiling. Time passes by quickly. We must return to the ship. Organized, organized, organized.
The engine resumes, and by the end of the day, the ship moors into the bay, alongside the dozens of others that are anchored for the night. We’re brought to the nearby island, from where we get to see the famed view of Halong Bay’s sprawled islands, and dip into the waters.
Conversations fly in the evening air, laid back on the deck. The stars swirl above. The silhouette of the cliffs dances on the darkening horizons.
There’s an undeniable whiff of magic hovering about the bay.
The organizer offers drinks again. Fewer people accept. A beer, maybe. His persuasion is waning off. In the living room area, groovy music, disco lights. This isn’t this kind of crowd.
The couples soon retire to their rooms. The organizer is left with the solo girl. He continues to dance with her a little while, till she too retires to her room. The music is turned off.
The next day is grey. There’s a visit of the Sung Sot caves scheduled in the morning. Soon after, the cruise ship begins its return to the pier, to welcome another round of visitors.
We enjoy our last hour sprawled on deck.
Settle the bill and hop aboard the shuttle bus.
Sung Sot Cave Video, Vietnam:
From Halong Bay to Hanoi
Nearly all the way from Halong Bay to Hanoi, the narrow road is being expanded two or three-fold. As a result, the buildings on an entire side of the road are being destroyed to allow for the road’s expansion.
Many of the houses have been, literally, torn in half. The rear of the buildings remain standing, intact almost, while their street-facing façade has been demolished, giving an open view into the former living rooms and kitchens of the homes.
But what about the people who lived in those houses. Where are they now?
All for the sake of Development. I make note to write a story.
There’s a Caucasian rastaman, his wife and their kids. He’s in a great mood. They’re traveling all over Vietnam. We talk a little bit. The wife used to work for a lab, she was fired after taking a sabbatical, is trying to sue them, or they’re trying to sue her back.
I wonder about the kids’ experience, whether I would do the same with my children…
“Will we be dropped off at our hotels?” inquires a worried passenger (perhaps one of those who had unpleasant surprises during the cruise).
“Sure, yes,” replies the Vietnamese conductor crudely. This was one of the promises of the cruise deal, that each passenger would be individually dropped off at their hotel.
An hour later, everybody’s thrown out of the bus indiscriminately, somewhere around the city center, and left to their own means. The conductor parts with a wave, without looking back. The passengers aren’t happy.
I laugh it off. I’m relieved to be done with this whole experience.
And Coco is happy. Traveling together is a matter of compromise, and there’s little to complain about or regret when the ‘compromise’ involves cruising on a boat in one of the most idyllic places on Earth, even if that means composing with the tourist crowds and mercantile demons.
This experience also deeply influences our approach to the rest of our stay in Vietnam, and indeed, of our travels as a whole. We’ll be doing things on our own – we have already, but will be even more careful to.
Some mistakes need to be made. It’s a matter of luck and good fortune when they concern the smaller things of life. And it takes intelligence and mindfulness to make it so.
Taking the train from Hanoi to Hue
This last day in Hanoi is hot. Excruciatingly hot: maybe 110, closing in on 120 degrees. Muggy.
Movements slowed to a dull stroll. Cross the railroad tracks again. The same men loitering about, patting their bare bellies. Walk aimlessly. Crazed. The constant roar of motorbike traffic, a mix of shrill engines and blaring horns, is unnerving.
In the afternoon, suddenly the skies turn black. People running in the street. Nobody even reaches for their umbrella, futile as this prevention would be. The winds rush and whip the sidewalks one last time in the now deserted streets. Impending doom.
Coco and I rush for refuge into an empty café.
The downpour is two parts wholesome, one part destructive.
After some wishy-washing, decide to leave tonight. Walk to the train station.
We consult a map. I’d like to visit the rice terraces of Sapa, near the border with Laos. Unfortunately we’ll need to loop back through Hanoi on our way back. This would take at least two days.
Coco is, as always, a trooper. She stands by my decision, although I can tell the Sapa hike is not high on her list.
The other option is to start our journey southwards to Hue.
We learn there are no more sleeper tickets to Sapa. There are a handful left for Hue.
I ponder. In the end, we’ve already seen our share of rice terraces. The prospect of a full-day hike after spending a night on a wobbly wooden train seat is all but disheartening. And I know that each superhuman effort that I ask from Coco now is one less to count upon in the future, when it will be really needed.
Thus we decide on Hue and get our tickets. A worthwhile choice, as we shall see.
The train rocks back and forth wildly. We’re tired enough that we sleep through most of it.
More men join in the cabin during the night, over-crowding the lower bunks.
I’m relieved to see Coco safely sleep in the top berth. That is all that matters.
Also read the story and Travel Writing from Hanoi in Vietnam.
If you’re interested in travel tips and travel blog from Hanoi and Ha Long Bay, check out Rolling Coconut.
Or if you plan to visit Vietnam, see the Vietnam section to view all stories.