Halong Bay, Part 1

I woke up at a soul-crushing 6:30 today to be picked up for my Halong Bay cruise!

Halong Bay is this amazing site with all the limestone rocks jutting out of the water that you’ve probably seen a million times in magazines or movies. It’s 180 km from Hanoi, which in Vietnam takes at least four hours (!!) by car. It’s not really viable as a day trip, so most people opt to book cruises with one night or two on board. That way you can do one road trip one day and the other on the next.
I booked the 2 day/1 night cruise with the Dragon Legend, which goes around Bai Tu Long Bay, a less transited area of Halong Bay. I was picked up at my hotel by a large van with very comfortable seats (important, because it’s a long trip ahead!). I was able to leave my bag at the hotel when I checked out, so I’m travelling just with my backpack for the day. You don’t need many things for one night and it’s not fun to carry large bags around a boat!

The road trip felt like it took forever, even though I tried to take a nap on the way. As soon as we left Hanoi the landscape was the same the whole time through: rice fields, dilapidated houses, dirt roads, the occasional factory. Halfway through we made a pit stop at a tourist trap, ostensibly so we could use the restroom or have a coffee, but really to make us walk through a souvenir workshop. Then it was back on the road again, and it wasn’t until the very end of the trip that we started crossing cities.
It’s a very odd landscape, because inbetween the derelict-looking cement houses with storefronts sprawling on the dirt streets are brand new villas, posh and big even by European standards (certainly new by Versailles standards!). Who lives there? Where do they do their grocery shopping?
At around noon, we finally arrived at the harbour in Halong. It was drizzling in Hanoi, raining at the beginning of the trip, and finally it had settled on a gray daytime fog that made the ships disappear as they left the shore.

Once on the harbour, most cruise ships are too big to dock directly there, so we boarded a tender that then had to navigate a swarm of other tenders and smaller boats as they all tried to leave at the same time. We were on our boat within minutes, where we were given a security briefing and a welcome drink -nominally lemon tea- that tasted exactly like dishwasher soap before being given access to our cabins.
I have one of the two single cabins on the boat, which the hotel had warned me was “only” 11 sq m. It doesn’t have a sofa, they warned. Yeah, I live in Versailles, I think I can ovecome the indignity of spending one night in a cabin without its own living room!
Soon afterwards we were given a pretty bland lunch that, if unsatisfying, was certainly varied, with about six small courses. I didn’t declare any food allergies -for one thing, I have none- but later I found out I could have asked to not be served seafood. That would have saved me from a couple of tight spots with shrimp dishes!
After the long lunch, I finally had time to go to the deck and look around. All day I’d been so disappointed by the weather -I’d be okay with it being overcast, I’d be okay with it being too cold to swim -the water looks filthy anyway, you can see plastic bags and bottles floating by- but to have the fog to add to that… Halong Bay was perhaps the place I was most looking forward to in my trip, and coming all the way here and only being able to intuit the amazing landscape barely outlined on the gray horizon is very depressing! 
On the deck, in a half an hour or so that the fog lifted a little bit, I could see the limestone formations around me and felt for the first time the magic of what it must be like on a clear day. 

It really is a unique sight, these jarring rock formations that only get their green tops from trees barely holding on to their surface. We went on a quick excursion on the tender boat to pass between the rocks, and it’s quite breathtaking when you can see.

It’s getting cold now though, and starting to rain… In the time it took to add pictures to this entry, the fog creeped back in and now you can only see the rocks closest to the ship… Here’s hoping tomorrow’s clearer!

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