Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Ha Long Bay times two

I went to Ha Long Bay twice, for reasons I will get to below.

Take one
Cat, Mat, Claire, Sam and I took a Vega travel tour to Halong Bay straight after our overnight train from Sapa. There were 11 of us on the boat. It was misty and grey and a tad rainy, but through the mist we caught glimpses of the mythical landscape of Ha Long bay. There are over 3000 limestone islands and formations in this world heritage site. If you're feeling nerdy, check it out on wikipedia.

First stop was Ti Top Island. This tiny island with a white beach was visited by the cosmonaut Ghermann Titop, from the Soviet Union, accompanied by President Ho Chi Minh. To mark the significance of their visit, Uncle Ho named it Ti Top Island. The island’s real attraction is the pagoda-styled lookout point its peak. After climbing the 427 stone steps winding up the tall island you get a great view from the top. But it is a hard walk up there in the humidity!
View from Ti Top Island. From Vietnam

The Surprising Cave was next. I went in thinking yeah, whatever, we have Janolan Caves in Australia, and the Careys Cave in Wee Jasper is pretty cool. And Surprising cave was not that impressive to begin with. But turning a corner it was surprising, it was so massive! It also had an interesting phallic rock formation, suitably lit up with bring pink lights...

The surprising cave. From Vietnam

We then did a spot of kayaking. My kayaking buddy was Nikos from Greece. So we paddle through a tunnel into a lagoon, and pottered around talking about science, philosophy and psychology. It was a bit dark and misty though, so we didn't spend too much time on the water.
Cat and Mat kayaking. From Vietnam

We had a very relaxing night with delicious food and wine on the boat. My room was comparable to the hotels I'd been staying in, with wood paneling and twin beds. Rather luxurious really for a junk in Halong bay!

The next day involved a lot of cruising through the waters and admiring the scenery. I think I took close to 100 photos of it all. The scenery is just so incredible - limestone islands rising from still green water, rocks covered with dense jungle, eagles soaring around. It is such a mythical landscape that you can almost see the dragons fighting in these waters, spirits creating the stunning beauty. It is the stuff of fairy tales and folk lore. The clouds and mist did not lift while we were there, but it added to the magic of it all.
A fishing village on the water of the bay. From Vietnam

Halong Bay, take two
I mentioned in a previous post that I met two fabulous Israeli guys, Amit and Ido and decided to change my plans to travel with them some more. So that is how I ended up in Halong Bay again 6 days later. This time we were on the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel Tour. There were 30 of us, the sun was shining, it was hot, and our guide AJ was absolutely hilarious. It was basically completely opposite to my last tour. The sun lit up the bay beautifully and the views were incredible.

We went kayaking for two hours, the highlight of which was the suitably random Fairy Cave. So much laughter with our guide saying all sorts of crazy things about it. There was a really special moment though when 32 people were in an unlit cave, and the torches were turned off and we spent two minutes in silence, thinking about how we had all ended up in a cave in Halong bay. It was intense, but brilliant.
Halong Bay in sunshine. From Vietnam

Our kayaks tied up while we were in the Fairy Cave. From Vietnam

That night everyone drank and listened to music and had great conversations about travel on the top deck. So people jumped off the roof of the junk into the water, but the sun had gone down and it was a tad cool so I wasn't game.
Amit paddling. From Vietnam

We were up early the following day to get off the bus for Cat Ba Island, the largest island in the bay. The group did a 2 hour hike, but Ido had just had a knee operation so we caught the local bus into town with a French couple and drank coffee and looked at the view instead. We had some great chats about our countries and cultures and all sorts of things. I'm really quite glad I didn't go hiking up a mountain!
Amit and Ido, silly smiling. From Vietnam

After a delicious lunch of fish and stirfry at the Princes hotel where we were staying, AJ took some of us on a walk around to some of Cat Ba's beaches. We stopped at a beach side bar for a tiger beer. There was a mean soccer game happening on the sand in front of us, the locals were so agile, playing on the sloping sand! Amit and I sat and chatted, looking out to the ocean and the islands. We had a great conversation about people and love and life... Again I was struggling to believe that this person that thinks so similar to me comes from such a far off place.
The tour group on the boat. From Vietnam

That night we all ended up at a bar dancing and drinking whiskey. It was great fun, I hadn't danced in ages. And dancing on an Island in Halong bay just made it all so awesome. At one stage a black guy from the states read some very cool poems. I'm all for the spontaneous poetry, there should be more of it in the world!

the longest day to end
The following day was my last in Vietnam. I was very sad to say goodbye to Amit and Ido. Particularly Amit (sorry Ido, you are a very awesome guy too!) as Amit and I had grown close in the few days we had spent together. I caught the bus from Cat Ba Island at 9.15am rather than going back with the tour, which was taking the long route as I had to catch a plane. Lucky for me the French couple also took the bus option, so we had some good chats on the bus, ferry, bus and taxi to get back to Hanoi. There was only one incident involving a rigged taxi meter, but it all ended without too much drama.

I picked up my bag from the hostel in Hanoi, caught a shuttle to the airport, and checked in. 30mins before the flight was due to depart at 5pm, there is an announcement that it has been delayed 2hours. Now this was bad news as I needed to make the check in for my international Jetstar flight in Saigon by 9.05pm... and it was a 2 hour journey. I discovered two Aussie girls in the same situation as me, and the airline was really helpful, putting our bags on an earlier flight and being reassuring that we would make it. I was so lucky to meet to Aussie girls though to keep me from stressing over the possibility of missing my international flight! We had a great chat on the plane in our front row seats reflecting on our journeys to Vietnam, our past travels, and what was happening next in our lives.

We landed in Saigon with 10mins to get off the plane and check in. The airline met us with a special bus, we ran to find our bags piled them on a trolley and then, well imagine a trolley full of bags and three girls running through the airport with people almost jumping to get out of our way... that was us! We got to the International terminal just as they were calling out final check in for our flight... We were so lucky to make it! And a benefit of arriving so late was the check in guy gave us each a whole row to lie down in for our journey to Darwin. I slept the whole way home.

home again home again
Now I'm back home and the silence of Canberra feels strange. Where are all the people? Where are all the plastic chairs and tables on the side of the road? Where's all the raw meat being cut up next to scooters? Where's the beeping of horns, the noise of air conditioners, people trying to sell me stuff, the humidity? Home feels like a foreign country. And going to work seems incredibly odd. I can't stop thinking about where I'll go travelling to next. Perhaps Israel? We'll see.

Darwin airport at dawn. From Vietnam

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