CURRENT LOCATION: Hanoi, Vietnam
We last left you in Hanoi, as we prepared for our trip to Halong Bay. While booking our cruise in Halong Bay, we were both overwhelmed with choice, and unable to be picky. There are thousands of cruise companies in Halong Bay, but it was Wednesday, and we were trying to book a cruise for Friday, so our options were limited to what was still available.
When we were thinking about the cruise before leaving NZ, we had decided on a standard two day, one night cruise. It was something we were really excited about doing, and one of the big 'bucket list' items for our trip. Enter Sati Sembhi and Rob Butler, our incredibly generous friends from home who chose our cruise on the wedding registry. As a side note, they were also the biggest fans of Zev's Smiths serenade at the wedding! Obviously, our huge and heartfelt thanks go out to Rob and Sati for their part in making our Halong Bay cruise such an incredible few days!
Once we arrived in South East Asia, did a bit more research, and spoke to people who had been, it became clear that the best idea is to do a three day, two night cruise. Most people said that they wished they'd stayed longer, or that the two day itinerary felt a little rushed, and that the three day cruises go further out from the city, so you get a bit more peace and quiet.
After our recent feelings of 'meh', and with the help of Rob and Sati, we decided to treat ourselves. We did some TripAdvisor research, and picked the best ranked company that had space left over the weekend - Paradise Sails, ranked #2 on TripAdvisor. The lady at the booking office was incredibly helpful, and managed to find us a twin room - the only room left in the fleet that weekend. I asked if there was any chance of a double, since it is our honeymoon and we're not quite sick of each other yet, but to no avail. Ah well.
And so, at 6.30am on Friday morning, we were pounding the pavements of Hanoi in search of a taxi. You might think that sounds easy, but it most certainly is not! We walked for about 20 minutes, with all the taxis either full, or going in the opposite direction. Eventually we managed to flag one down, after walking about 10 blocks. Luckily we left ourselves with plenty of time. After a little bit of driving around the block, disguised as negotiating one way streets, we were dropped off at the address provided by the cruise company. It looked like a community hall, and as we tried to ask the man inside if we were in the right place, he shut the door in our face. At that point, I honestly began to think that we had been ripped off again, and was getting ready to set Hanoi on fire. We walked to the corner and asked a waiter at a cafe if he knew where we could find our pick up point. He kept pointing at a table and saying, "Sit!", while my blood pressure was elevating. I don't want a coffee dammit, tell us where the address is! At that point, Zev realised that he was pointing to a sign behind that table that said "Paradise Sails pick up point", and that he wanted us to sit down and wait there for our transfer van. How embarrassing. We sat, and he gave us complementary bottled water. I sat sat there feeling terrible. Sure enough, bang on time our van turned up, and in we hopped with one other girl. We settled in for the four hour trip to Halong Bay, queued up our podcasts, and napped.
About an hour and a half into the drive, it was time for the obligatory stop at the cafe/souvenir shop/art gallery/toilet/sculpture garden. It was FREEZING, properly cold (Zev estimates 15°, so maybe I'm just getting soft, and my definition of freezing is changing). Now those of you who have been paying attention may remember that my luggage cull in Bangkok included throwing out my pants, because I couldn't imagine a world in which I would ever need pants again. What an idiot. My warmest clothes are a pair of 3/4 yoga tights which, don't get me wrong, I was grateful for, but were not cutting the mustard. In an attempt to warm up, we ordered two cups of overpriced coffee (delicious), and some food (inedible). At this point I panicked, we were going on a boat for three days, and I didn't want to freeze. Cue buying of incredibly overpriced pants. Sigh.
Back in the van, we continued the trip through to countryside to Halong Bay. Eventually, we arrived at the headquarters for Paradise Sails. As we got out of the van, a man with a clipboard asked us our names. "Oh hello Zev and Samantha. I'm pleased to tell you that your cruise ship has been upgraded." Well alright then! I have to admit we didn't know much about our particular cruise ship because we had booked what was available, so there didn't seem to be much point in agonising over what could have been if we'd booked earlier. The only thing we knew was the twin bed situation, so at the very least we were pretty happy we'd now be getting a double bed at least. We were given our boarding pass, and sent into the waiting room, where we would be collected when our ship was ready for boarding.
I would've been happy to spend three days and two nights in the boarding lounge. There was free tea and coffee (and I mean proper tea, with milk and everything), and snacks like sweet potato chips and kettle corn. I'm pretty easy to please. We looked around. We were about 10 years younger than anyone else there, the only people dressed in hiking shoes, and the only ones with backpacks rather than wheeled, hard sided suitcases. It was then we realised that it was only a matter of time before they found out we were imposters and kicked us out.
Clearly we were pulling it off though, because we were told it was time to board and taken down to the ship. I am not kidding when I tell you that as we boarded, they showered us with rose petals. They threw rose petals on us from the balcony. We were then greeted with hot towels for our hands and faces, and glasses of warm passion fruit juice. We were introduced to Ronald, our amazing, friendly, funny cruise manager, and shown to our room. He led us past the spa, where you could get massages and facials, the pedicure and foot massage room, the sauna, the gym, and the library. Yep, you read all that right. And then our room. Holy crap, our room. At 32m2, I think it was actually bigger than my first apartment.
We entered into the bedroom section, with the biggest bed I've ever seen. I'm pretty sure it was two double beds pushed together, and it was heaven. They'd put a duvet under the bottom sheet, with an enormous duvet on top, and the biggest, fluffiest pillows on earth. Obviously, we called it cloud bed, and loved it very much. We had a wardrobe, complete with robes and slippers, an espresso machine, a flatscreen TV and DVD player, and a minibar. Not bad at all.
Turning left, you enter the bathroom. The shower was enormous, with a shower head and rain plate. The sink faucet was like a gentle cascading waterfall. And there was a jacuzzi. A JACUZZI!!!!
Turning right from the bedroom, we had a private dining room with a bench seat/lounge room area, and sliding doors opening onto the front deck of the boat.
As soon as Ronald left, we literally squealed, hugged, and jumped up and down. Oh yes, this would do just nicely...
By this stage it was about 1pm, and lunch was to be served at 1.30pm. We made our way up to the sun deck, introduced ourselves to some of the other guests, and took in the scenery. As mentioned, it was cold and pretty stormy looking. Oh my goodness, it was beautiful. Halong Bay is a UNESCO world heritage site, approximately 1553km2, containing nearly 2000 islands, mostly limestone. The mist and fog cloaked the limestone karsts, creating a really moody, mysterious atmosphere. The whole area is like nothing I've ever seen, and is one of the few sights I've seen that looks just how it does in photos and on screen, but doesn't disappoint. I cannot possibly explain it - you really must come here and see it for yourself!
Our trip began properly with lunch. So much lunch. As was the case for the rest of the cruise, we ate until we were sick. Our four course lunch consisted of duck and baby mango salad, followed by tomato soup, then the seafood medley for Zev (squid, scallops, prawns, and a whole butter fish), chicken for me, a fruit platter, and tea to top it all off. By the time we were done, we needed to be rolled to our room. We still had 45 minutes of cruising until we reached our destination, so we retired to cloud bed to sleep off our food comas.
Sure enough, we stopped shortly after, and got on to the transfer boat with the rest of the passengers to go to one of the islands. We pulled up on a sandy beach, climbed some stairs, and entered a massive cave. We wandered through and out the other side of the island. But this stage, it felt like we were quite far away from the city and other cruise ships, so it seemed pretty peaceful. They were a couple of other boats around, but it certainly wasn't crowded. As we headed back to the beach, the weather started looking pretty grey. Zev and one other guy were the only ones brave enough to get in the water - although Zev assured us all that it actually wasn't that cold (the other fella disagreed!). Just as our transfer boat arrived to pick us us, the heavens opened, and it poured with rain. I love storms, so it was really cool to be in this amazingly beautiful place while the rain buckets down, and you're snug and warm in a cloud bed on a boat.
Later that evening, we attended our "cooking and drinking" class, where we learnt to make deep fried spring rolls. Since Zev and I had already attended a cooking course, we were naturally the star pupils. Or at least that's the story we're telling. While we waited for the chef to deep fry them, Ronald poured us each a shot of rice wine. Shudder. After learning the traditional Vietnamese cheer of "mot, hai, ba, DZO!!!!", which translates to "one, two, three, CHEERS!!!" (another thing Zev and I excelled at), we downed our rice wine. Thank god the spring rolls turned up in time to get the taste of it out of our mouths...
We had a little free time before dinner, during which we played a game of chess that I WON!!!!! After I won chess (did I mention that I won?), we changed for dinner. We had been provided with traditional vietnamese clothing, which was really fun. Everyone turned up for dinner looking fabulous, and we all had photos with Ronald, which was a hoot. I think the rice wine greased the wheels for a few people...
Dinner was another gastronomical delight. I started with fresh spring rolls, followed by pork, and the most amazing chocolate pudding I've ever eaten. Zev enjoyed beef noodle salad, hot and sour soup, crab, and an apple fritter. Completely full, content and exhausted, we retired to our room for the night. Flicking on the lights, what did we find on the bed but a chocolate cake with "Happy honeymoon" written on it in chocolate icing. What an amazing crew, they're just so sweet! We wished we'd known about the cake though, because the sight of it nearly had us throwing up because we were so FULL from dinner! We politely moved it to a side table, and hoped they wouldn't be offended if we didn't eat it that night... Zev popped out to the back of the boat to try his hand at squid fishing. They shine a huge spotlight into he water to try to attract the squid, and you use a green lure on a bamboo rod, which you bob up and down in the hopes of making it look like a shrimp. He returned to the room squidless.
The next morning, Zev attended sunrise Tai Chi on the sundeck. I was enjoying cloud bed far too much to even consider getting up. He reports that it was hilarious, with a delicate and coordinated Vietnamese lady up the front demonstrating the moves, while 9 uncoordinated white folks tried to follow along, giggling and looking like fools. Apparently there were people on other boats laughing and taking photos.
At 8am, we had breakfast in the dining room, and again, ate far too much delicious food. At 9am, we were transferred from our boat, the "Paradise Peak", to the day boat, the "Paradise Explorer". The way they work the cruises is pretty genius. Of the 14 people on the boat with us, only 4 of us were doing the two night cruise. All the others were doing an overnight. So while we went onto the Explorer boat, the Peak cruised everyone else back to Halong Bay, and picked up the next load of passengers. The explorer boat also contained all the two night passengers from all the other Paradise Sails boats, which all do the same thing. Then they cruised back out to pick us up at the end of the day. Brilliant!
Off we headed on the a Explorer. We cruised for about an hour, enjoying a cup of tea or two and more stunning scenery. By this stage we were really far out, so there were even fewer boats around, and we really felt like we had the place to ourselves. We arrived at a floating fishing village, and transferred to bamboo boats, rowed by locals, to tour it. We visited a floating primary school, and saw the floating fish farms. Here, the fishermen catch small fish, but rather than eating them, bring them back to the floating farm where they feed them and grow them, so they can sell them for more money. We continued on to a pearl farm, where they showed us how to harvest the pearls, and naturally gave us a tour of their shop.
We transferred back to the Explorer where, surprise surprise, they fed us again. Soup, scallops, salad, tofu, fish, chicken, fruit platters.... We could feel the ship getting lower in the water as we ate.
After recovering from lunch, we went kayaking around the bay. Well, Zev kayaked, and I sat in the front, groaning and rubbing my stomach. We paddled around for about half an hour, before returning to the boat to follow lead of one of the kids on the boat. We made our way up to the roof, and jumped off. It was cold, but great fun. As everyone came back in, we got some bad news - there was a typhoon the way, and it wasn't clear whether we would be able to spend another night out in Halong Bay. They thought we might have to go back to the mainland and spend the night in the hotel owned by the cruise line. This was really disappointing to hear, but there wasn't much we could do about it. We started cruising earlier than planned, so that we would be able to get back to shore before the typhoon hit.
After about an hour of cruising back to the rendezvous point for the Peak, we got word from the cruise managers that we'd been given the all clear - yippee! We transferred back to our boat, happy that we got to spend another night in cloud bed. Somehow, even after all that lunch, we managed to demolish our honeymoon cake, and let me tell you it was just as delicious as all the rest of the food on the cruise. We had some rest time before dinner, as the other guests enjoyed their cooking course, so I took advantage of the jacuzzi... Having never used one before, I nearly flooded the bathroom, but it definitely felt like a most luxurious drowning.
We made our way upstairs for our 9 course dinner. Yes, 9 courses. As if he regular meals weren't enough to kill us. Our feast included chicken and herb salad, fish, baked chicken, stir fried beef, clam and vegetable broth, stir fried bok choy, prawns, steamed rice, fried bananas, and ice cream.
We decided to work off dinner with round two of squid fishing. We both returned to the room squidless, but were cheered up with a pot of tea delivered to the room.
Our final day started with a 7.15am wake up, to board the transfer boat at 7.45am. We made our way to "Surprise Cave", and ended up having a private tour with our own guide. The activity choices for the morning were a bamboo boat to a lagoon where you can see monkeys (no walking required), or to climb "lots of stairs" to the cave. We were the only ones who chose the "lots of stairs" option, which actually wasn't very many stairs at all. Surprise Cave was discovered in 1901 by the French. I suspect it was discovered by the Vietnamese long before that, but gosh, that doesn't count. The roof is 30m high, it covers 10,000m2, and is located 25m above sea level.
We headed back to the Paradise Peak, and enjoyed a final enormous room service breakfast, before packing our bags and 'checking out'. We then headed up to the back deck to enjoy one final view of the limestone karsts in the distance.
After disembarking, we headed to the hotel to wait for our transfer back to Hanoi, where, wouldn't you know it, they gave us lunch. By this stage we were both actually starting to feel pretty sick. Our 4 hour van ride back to the city was basically a giant nap, and luckily, the bus home dropped us half a block from Brendan's door, which was about as far as we could manage to drag our fat asses by that point.
That night, we got to meet Brendan's wife Qiuyi, who had been away for work when we arrived. They very kindly arranged a curry dinner for us on their lovely deck, looking out over Hanoi and one of its many lakes. While we were sad that our time in Halong Bay was over, it didn't last long with this kind of hospitality on offer.
Thanks again to Rob and Sati for making our Halong Bay dream a reality. We had the most amazing time, and it's something we will remember for the rest of our lives. Ronald and his crew have already invited us back for our 10 year anniversary! I hope we're lucky enough to take them up on it.
Lots of love,
S & Z
(Original post date: 13th April 2015)