Once again the back and forthing, the “maybe this” or “how about that?” even the “should we go or should we stay?” was driving us crazy. There were so many companies and combinations of packages that finally we just threw ourselves on the mercy of the concierge at our hotel thinking they really didn’t want guests coming back pissed off from a bad experience.
Two days and one night on a sixteen cabin bay steamer. It’s really the only way to appreciate this UNESCO World Heritage site, but they aren’t giving these berths away and we’ll lose two precious days in Hanoi. It was a tough decision because let’s face it, we spend every night sleeping on a boat and we’ve seen a few islands in over 30,000 nm of sailing.
The morning of the tour we were contemplating a second leisurely run through our hotel’s buffet breakfast when the concierge came up to our table and informed us that instead of an 8:30 pickup they will be here in 15 minutes! They weren’t but it was a close thing. We were the first pickup so our little bus trundled a circuitous route through downtown Hanoi for nearly an hour to stop at half dozen other hotels to collect the rest of our fellow passengers, mostly young couples.
Unfortunately it was a gray day so not much to look at as we drove out of town and we were informed that we would be making a comfort stop in two hours. When we finally pulled off the road at a rest area I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that in reality it was a massive souvenir shop and we were to make our way through the gift gauntlet to meet our bus on the other side. Immediately we were overwhelmed by massive sculptures and giant polished mineral boulders. Our personal sales associate, noticing our astonishment, leaned in and assured us in a conspiratorial tone, “We ship anywhere in the world!”
By the time we waded through acres and acres of every kind of Vietnamese souvenir we found the checkout counters and that’s when Marce discovered a large display of Pepperidge Farm products. It had been awhile. I guess by the time you get to checkout without your own personal mineral boulder you are not considered a high roller but they’ve just got to get something out of you…and they did. Cheddar Goldfish crackers at 187,000 dong ($8/bag.)
We piled into the little bus and another two hours later disgorged into the ship’s launch which took us and our luggage out to our boat and a sun-dappled lunch. Our room had classic louvered doors, an en suite bathroom and a tiny private balcony. It looked a proper bay steamer stateroom. Soon we were underway, navigating around small islands shaped like gigantic dragon teeth as far as the eye can see.
Of course the Vietnamese have creation myths about how Ha Long Bay was made, naturally involving gigantic dragons descending into the bay and something about swirling its tail making at last count well over 3000 limestone islands. The Bay encompasses 1,500 sq. km. so in two days there’s only so much of it you’re going to see.
A few hours later we anchored in the lee of a shapely spike of limestone and were shuttled by launch to a small fishing village for a bit of kayaking and a visit to a pearl farm.
Back aboard our boat we were ready for a beautiful sunset but as the sun sank lower a misty fog moved in and only a glass of wine could console us.
Dinner was abundant and well presented, with extra sides for Marce and the other vegetarians. While we were the oldest couple on the boat, as we usually are these days, we seemed to be accepted and included. We passed on Asia’s obsession with karaoke, our scheduled nighttime entertainment, and retired to our cabin and our Pepperidge Farm goldfish.
In the morning we steamed for an hour or so in the rain to another island and while the rest of the guests visited a cave, M and I stayed onboard to appreciate the scenery in peace and quiet while we could.
For the rest of the morning we motored back through the islands to the harbour in increasingly bleak weather. Towards the end the kitchen staff gave a cooking demonstration and the guests learned how to make spring rolls which became part of our lunch. And just like that we were at anchor, piled into the launch and into a bus for the 4-1/2 hour ride to Hanoi.
Back at the hotel the concierge eagerly awaited the verdict. Thoroughly enjoyable, we assured him.