February 6th & 7th, 2017
Thank goodness my husband is an expert negotiator. When I mentioned in my last post that you shouldn’t pay full price for anything in Vietnam… you really shouldn’t pay full price. We knew we wanted to go to Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site made up of thousands of picturesque formations and islands, but there were literally dozens of tour companies offering packages of various levels and costs – several touting faux Trip Advisor “endorsements.” We spoke with at least three tour companies – every time ending in me falling victim to the “book it now – this incredible deal is almost sold out!” strategy and John politely telling the salesperson that we need to talk about it and would let them know. Finally John was able to negotiate a good deal on a two-day, one-night package with Royal Wings, whose slogan was “The Signature of Luxury” – perfect! – and we realized the other companies were definitely charging too much. John was right, as always. (Guess who typed that.)
The tour bus picked us up from our hotel around 8 a.m. After braving the streets of the Old Quarter to pick up the other guests, about 18 of us made our way to Ha Long City, a 4.5 hour bus ride from outside. Cue insane driving and incessant horns again. Our tour guide, Binh, distracted us by telling us about the history and culture of Vietnam. We stopped at a roadside sculpture gallery featuring artwork by victims of agent orange (John was skeptical). The sculptures were exorbitantly expensive – of course there were photos of people from all over the world who purchased them, including many Americans (not these two). Finally we got to Ha Long City and boarded our boat, where we were greeted with a very nice lunch and overview of the cruise itinerary. After lunch we checked into our room, which was spacious, with a big Jacuzzi tub, comfortable bed and incredible view.
The bay is breathtaking. They say the limestone islets evolved over the last 20 million years… there are formations of all shapes and sizes. In fact, the name “Ha Long” means “descending dragon,” which I thought was because the formations look like the ridges on the back of a partially submerged dragon. Of course the actual legend is far more creative than that – apparently the Jade Emperor sent a mother dragon and her dragon children to earth to help the Vietnamese people defend their country at Ha Long Bay. The dragons used giant emeralds to defeat the enemy and created these formations as a barrier against future attacks. Interestingly, the dragons liked Ha Long Bay so much that they stayed and morphed into humans, helping the locals grow crops, raise cattle and expand their country. They say Vietnamese people consider themselves descendants of dragons.
We hopped in a traditional bamboo row boat for our first excursion to an old fishing village, where fishermen and their families once lived permanently. The floating villages are now uninhabited, though, because the fishermen were dumping their trash into the Bay – compromising future UNESCO certifications – and also needed access to modern amenities like healthcare and education. However, the floating villages remain a government funded tourist attraction, aquaculture farm and pearl farm. It really was interesting to see, and John said it reminded him of the little houses in Pilottown.
We returned to the boat for a cooking demonstration – we learned how to make Hanoi style spring rolls, which we’ll definitely make at home – and sunset happy hour before dinner. We got to chat with Binh about his life, including how he met his wife (and made sure her astrology matched up with his), their village wedding attended by 1,000 guests and their young daughter. After dinner we even tried squid fishing! The German family on board caught one – we were mesmerized by its black ink – but they threw it back to avoid it being served with breakfast.
The next day they offered a 6 a.m. Tai Chi class, but that was too early for us thanks to the happy hour wine we quite enjoyed the night before. We wanted to see the sunrise over the bay, but it was very foggy. Our excursion for the day was to a cavern on one of the islands, discovered years ago by the local fishermen. Natural steps up the formation led to a cave full of stalagmites and stalactites that opened up to a fabulous view of the sea. Of course we took some photos before walking down to the beach and heading back to the boat. They served us a buffet brunch which was delicious but sadly gave John a touch of food poisoning (he wants me to add that he was “in debilitating pain” and has “thankfully” recovered). After an extended bus ride thanks to Hanoi rush hour, we made it back to the hotel where John began the fight against the Southeast Asian 24 hour bug and I sipped on Pho.
Overall we really enjoyed the Ha Long Bay two-day experience and would recommend Royal Wings to others heading to Vietnam. It is definitely a must-see if you’re in Hanoi or the surrounding areas. Pro tip: bring lots of Dramamine!