Go Ahead And Splurge A Bit, You’re In Ha Long Bay

Monday, January 12, 2009

Go Ahead And Splurge A Bit, You're In Ha Long Bay

By Kyle Long

Within the first five minutes of exiting the airport I got a pretty good sense of what I was going to find in Vietman. Arriving here can be a bit of a shock at first, especially if you’ve just spent the last week relaxing in some of the country’s more laid-back neighbors, such as Laos or Cambodia.

“No minibus, you wait long time,” a man told me as I arrived at the taxi-stand. “Taxi leave now.” We proceeded to the airport-to-downtown minibus, as per the suggestion by the lady I spoke with at the information desk, paid our $2 each, and promptly sped away in about three minutes. Yes it was cramped, but saving $10 for a 45 minute-ride feels pretty good when you’re watching every cent.

The trick of Hanoi is to cut the right corners to stretch the budget. Part of the beauty of visiting Southeast Asia is how far your money goes and even if you’re traveling minimalist for months, every now and then a bit of luxury probably won’t bust your budget.

Even Lonely Planet’s “On a Shoetstring” doesn’t recommend taking the budget tours offered on every street corner in and around Hanoi. Nothing seems blatantly malicious, but trip descriptions are worded in such a way that you never know exactly where you’re going or what you’re going to end up doing.

halong2For example, a one-day tour of Ha Long Bay, the main attraction outside of Hanoi, can cost you just around $20 for everything (including lunch). The itinerary will read something along the lines of: “Pick up at 8 a.m., arrive at boat to eat lunch, cruise Ha Long Bay while stopping to visit caves, and return back to your hotel for dinner.” While all this is technically true, you will likely awake near dawn to make rounds picking up a myriad of other passengers first, arrive for what you think will be a lovely meal on board the boat which, in actuality, is a cheap meal at a roadside restaurant, and generally find yourself being herded around like a flock of sheep.

The price is that good because you’re not getting much but a hurried look at what the area has to offer, not to mention the commission the travel operator gets for dropping you off at the many rest-stop stores you’ll be forced to visit.

Many travel companies offer overnight cruises that the vast majority of visitors overlook in their hurried retreat back to Hanoi. In order to fully take in the beauty and wonder of the other-worldy limestone peaks of Ha Long Bay — currently situated at a respectable number five on the “New 7 Wonders of Nature” nominees list — upping your budget for the day can really pay off.

Ha Long Bay received over three million visitors last year, so it’s no surprise there’s a wide variety of tour operators offering their services to show you around. Keep in mind that a very reasonable price upgrade can lead to a much more relaxed view of the stunning peaks, access to some of the more beautiful beaches, and opportunities to climb to the top of a mountain for an unforgettable 360-degree panoramic view of the bay. When you factor in not paying for accommodations in Hanoi for a night, four full meals, and not having to make the four-hour bus trek each way twice in one day, it quickly becomes apparent that this is not only the best way to see the bay, but also one of the best ways to grab a little bit of vacation too.

I decided to try Ciao Travel, a Hanoi-based service that offers a two-day, one-night excursion for around $100, depending on the season, and that includes most everything (but drinks) including a guide and a touch of 5-star service you don’t often get backpacking around Southeast Asia. There’s also a longer three-day option, including a kayaking trip, or a five-day trip featuring even more sights as well as some time set aside for diving.

With just eight rooms on the beautiful, self-termed “junk” boat, rest assured there is plenty of room on the upper sun deck at all times. The only unwanted guests on our trip were the jellyfish that thrive in the warm, calm waters of Ha Long Bay who managed to successfully sting two out of the nine guests aboard the boat.

As everyone would gather around together for meals, the guide would invariably offer a few attempts at some jokes to break the ice, but we were generally left alone to get to know the other guests.

The other guests on board represented a slightly higher echelon of travelers than the usual third-class Titanic-type passengers we’d become accustomed to. Fabio, a tall Swiss homeopath gave us a remedy from a foot injury sustained earlier in Laos and his wife had more piercings than Tommy Lee. Ironically, one of the other guests, Australian Gayle, works as a “naturopath,” and through our auras “sensed” that we all had positive vibes and energy. She also sensed, thankfully, that none of us had cancer. Gayle and her friend left their husbands, sold their houses, and have been traveling the world ever since. There’s got to be a screenplay there somewhere. Another British couple were working as professional musicians in Singapore.

Although most of the time is spent cruising to and from the bay, there is time allotted for a guided trip around the main cave, translated as “Awesome Cave.” For anyone who appreciates the Asian tradition of lighting up a cave in neon and naming various rock protrusions with what they vaguely resemble, this is for you. There are “turtles,” “lovebirds,” and much, much more. You are even treated to slightly vulgar protrusions, such as a cylindrical red-lit rock, which your guide will selflessly point out and make a cringe-worthy joke out of.

Later in the day, there was time for a short hike to the top of one of the 1,669 islands of Ha Long Bay for a truly breathtaking view. After a quick swim with the jellyfish, we were ready for a relaxing dinner back on the boat. Having drinks on the top deck in the warm breeze while we anchored, surrounded by about 50 other boats, provided little incentive to head back to the cabins for bed.

On day two of the trip, we awoke early for breakfast and another smaller cave tour, and then went back on the boat through the bay. Back at our starting point 24 hours later, we couldn’t help but feel totally relaxed but also accomplished, and thinking, “Isn’t this how travel should be? Sometimes at least?”

For more information on the overnight trip, or other Ha Long Bay adventures, a good place to start is www.ciaotravel.vn.

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