come sail away, come sail away with me
Growing up, Ryann’s father had a loyal taste to a particular Chinese buffet.She recalls eating at this buffet restaurant at different times in her life, with three definite memories: the appetizing lo mein, the big goldfish tank and the paintings on the walls. The point of this reminiscence is to comment on the paintings.
Waiting for her father to finish round three of the buffet, she’d look around at the different paintings. Colossal, tall green mountains towered over the rivers and land, with junk boats sailing and fisherman busy at work below. She became enchanted, wondering if one day she could float on one of those boats herself, meandering peacefully between those massive cliffs. It looked like a beautiful place! Probably, not many travelers could be obligated to thank a Chinese buffet for an itinerary addition in Vietnam, but that’s how it happened for us.
While planning SE Asia, an image of Ha Long Bay appeared. Is that in China? Worried, because we weren’t planning on visiting China or going through the extensive and expensive visa process. Vietnam! Perfect! It’s embarrassing to admit, but we hadn’t heard of Ha Long Bay prior to this. Next, we’d be researching cruises.
Hanoi to Ha Long Bay
Devin found us an overnight cruise, from the top-rated company, IndoChina Junk, highlighted on TripAdvisor. We booked a room onboard, packed a bag, and endured the four hour long car ride from Hanoi.
We stopped mid-way along the drive to the infamous and frequent rest stop “Hong Ngoc Shopping Center,” featuring arts and crafts made by the disadvantaged and disabled of Vietnam. Happy to stretch our legs and for a bathroom break, we bypassed the usual tourist trap souvenirs, not to mention the numerous, pricey statues scattered on the lawn. We joined others outside, to get away from the persistent vendors and waited for our driver.
Back on the road, we drove another two hours until we finally started seeing the prominent limestone karsts in the distance. How could anyone get tired of seeing the striking green rice fields with the unpredictable curves of the karsts as a backdrop? It was truly astounding, unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.
We pulled up to and were guided to our designated waiting area. Around forty people, composed of families and couples from all over the world would be joining us. We sat talking to each other while we waited, it seemed like a nice group! Before long, we were introduced to the man in charge, who would act as our guide and activity leader. He told us to follow him, taking turns to aboard a passenger boat which would bring us to the ship.
The Dragon Legend
Appropriately named, for it was daunting, like we suspect a dragon would be. And Legend, because we don’t know if we’d ever board a ship like it ever again! The design was impeccable, colors of deep mahogany mixed with modern Asian influence. The ship was exquisite, detailed, new and in immaculate condition. Wow! If only little Ryann, sitting in the Chinese buffet could see her now. Not quite what she had expected, but all the better.
The staff welcomed us with bows and smiles. Each person had a well-known Western name on their nametag: Peter Pan, Tom Cruise, to name a couple. Lots of celebrities onboard to wait on us!
We were given welcome drinks (non-alcoholic) while we waited for our room keys. The man came around the tables, handing out the keys like presents. Everyone went down immediately to their rooms, and we were tempted too, but instead, decided to take pictures of the empty ship while everyone was gone.
After a few pictures, we ventured to our room which was two floors down from the top deck. Oh my God. It was spectacular: giant windows, a bathtub overlooking the ocean view, massive comfortable bed, huge television, bathrobes and slippers, etc. We were spoiled.
We went back upstairs to indulge next in the food prepared for us. There was a seven-course Vietnamese dining experience ready and waiting. The food was delicious! We sampled and tried everything, feeling pampered and awe-struck at the passing karsts. We learned that some were more well-known than others and had been named. Alvin & the Chipmunks. The Monster. The Face. Our guide rattled on many more, pointing them out as we approached them.
Sea Kayaking at Sunset
Feeling full, the next rational move was to work it off a bit with some sea kayaking around the karsts. We were given time to change and apply sunscreen, then met downstairs with the rest of the group to retrieve the kayaks. We decided on sharing a two-seater, hoping the other would do more of the work!
Entertainingly enough, we watched as an inexperienced couple from Uruguay, on their honeymoon, managed to flip the kayak. Ryann was freaking out for them. DID YOU SEE THE JELLYFISH THAT PATROL THESE WATERS? It was true. We had seen at least nine or ten in total during our time in Ha Long Bay. They weren’t just darling, measly little jellyfish that you might see washed ashore in Florida. No. These jellyfish were monsters, beasts, behemoths of the ocean with long tentacles to get tangled up in. Luckily for the couple, they’d live another day.
We got in our kayak, after a short warning to Devin given by Ryann. There was no funny business welcomed with those things lurking in the water. After a short while, we got our rhythm down, minus a splash or two, and explored around the karsts. We had paddled off on our own away from the group to get a closer look at the floating fisherman houseboat. As we got closer, we were welcomed by a family waving friendly hellos in our direction. How nice! We circled back, paddling towards the sunset. What a view!
Before we knew it, it was time to head back. We boarded the Legend, clambering with everyone else to take pictures of the stunning sunset.
Dinner & A Show
After the pictures, we showered and got ready for dinner. It was another orchestra of Vietnamese dishes. Favorites were the sea weed salad and the crab cakes, nomnomnom. For the second time today, we were shocked at our ability to consume everything that was presented to us, and it wasn’t over yet. Because the couple was on a honeymoon and a woman was celebrating her birthday, we were also given cake! The crew then surprised us with two songs donned in Vietnamese traditional apparel. The head chef also exhibited the Mother of all fruit sculptures. Quite the talented crew.
Once our stomachs were full, most of the group went down to participate in some squid fishing. It was adorable watching two little boys squeal with excitement as they caught their first squid. Ink splashing in the ocean, they celebrated jumping up and down with glee.
Tired, we retired to bed early and left the excitement to the youngins.’
Private Island, Cave & More Kayaking
Our last day was spent a little irresponsibly, but that’s just how it is sometimes. We slept in, bypassing our alarm and needing to be woken up with a phone call from the guide. Oops. Rushing, we got ready and ate our breakfast. Breakfast was a little lackluster, nothing to blog about.
The final day would be spent on the private island, visiting the cave and optional kayaking. Not bad! We threw on some sunblock and hopped on the boat to bring us to the island.
While reading about the private island in the description, we imagined mile-long stretches of white sand, curious monkeys and unexplored jungle. Not quite. The island was small, accompanied with a humble-sized beach claiming to be “safe from jellyfish” and the only animals that were curious were two friendly dogs. But most importantly, it was private. There were plenty of kayaks to borrow, some chairs to lounge in, and lockers available to store any possessions while swimming or kayaking.
Before partaking in the other activities, our guide took us on a short hike up the hill to the cave. On a different 2-night cruise, an option of a dinner cruise in the cave is advertised. We saw the table and chairs and where the dining would be served. Our thoughts? Meh. One night was absolutely enough for Ha Long Bay and definitely not worth a second night to dine in the cave. What was interesting about this cave though was that it was used by sailors and fisherman in the area during monsoon season or other severe storms. Apparently, years ago they found pottery and other artifacts from sea-dwelling inhabitants that took refuge in this cave. Now, if we could’ve camped there during a monsoon? That would be worth the extra night!
After the short tour, we took a few pictures of the view. Very pretty!
We hiked down, hopped in a kayak and paddled away to explore more of the area. We passed many fisherman busy with their nets, but after that, were very alone drifting in and out between the karsts. We managed to find one area which piqued our interest. We closely examined the shoreline, finding leftovers from the fisherman such as netting and buckets. We also saw a few starfish!
Lost in the serenity of the area, we managed to lose track of time. There was no way we had been gone for 45 minutes. But, after hearing the ship’s horn blow, we knew we were. Shit, shit, shit! If only we were filmed, we’re pretty sure any Ivy-League rowing teams would fight for our newfound talent. We paddled and arrived in record timing, seeing that we were only 4 minutes late. Oh, come on! We boarded, afraid of the other passengers glares, but instead were greeted with jokes of being late and smiles. That was a relief. Late twice i n a day, reckless Americans!
The Lunch Buffet
Returning back to the Legend, we were instructed to pack our rooms and be up on deck in 15 minutes. We showered, packed and made it up on the deck in 10. We weren’t going to be late a third time. Next up was the lunch buffet. After the embarrassment and serious kayaking we had done, we were hungry. Again, the buffet was…just okay. The food really wasn’t that great. Maybe the cook and the staff didn’t feel the appreciation or get the reaction they wanted from their performance after dinner, so the last day suffered from it? We’ll never know. The only thing we did know, was that we’d be eating as soon as we arrived in Hanoi. One thing that’s important to include, is that the menu included the squid that was caught the night before. That was cool!
During lunch, we overheard a British couple talking to the guide. During the drive back to Hanoi, the itinerary called for a stop in a village to watch a water puppet show. Because of a tight schedule, they wanted to skip it and drive straight to Hanoi in order to save two hours. The guide explained they would need two more people interested in skipping it as well in order to make it happen. After a brief discussion, we decided we could skip the water puppet show and get back to our hotel. We had to do laundry and plan the rest of our days in the area. We didn’t need to see the water puppet show. So, because of that situation, we cannot comment on that aspect that was included in the tour.
Back to Port
Before we knew it, we were back to where we started. We made it back to port in what seemed a lot shorter time. We followed the other guests to the IndoChina Junk’s waiting area. We sat and waited for our van to arrive for about 20 minutes. It seemed that the departure was the most unorganized part of the trip. The British children we would share the van with were complaining of how tired they were. We felt the same, kids.
Finally, we boarded and away we went. We stopped at a “same, same but different” rest-stop on the way home. We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Ha Long Bay. We saw such beautiful landscapes that was truly unforgettable and quite possibly, incomparable.
One day, Ryann plans to return to the same Chinese buffet for dinner with her father and compare the paintings with her experience.