Cruising Ha Long Bay – A Natural Wonder of the World
Ha Long Bay – Natural Wonder of the World
You’ve probably noticed by now that exploring the world’s natural beauty is a great passion of ours so it should come as no surprise that it is one of our dreams to visit all of the “New7Wonders of Nature” . We agreed that a cruise into one of the natural wonder’s of the world, Ha Long Bay, was an absolute must for our exploration of Vietnam.
Just about everything is negotiable in Vietnam, including guided excursions. We did a lot of shopping around in Ha Noi, there are literally hundreds of travel agencies in town all offering Ha Long Bay cruises, each claiming to be the best and the cheapest while proudly posting the ubiquitous “Sinh Cafe” sticker on their windows. The reality of course is that a lot of these agencies are amateur operations trying to sell you a cruise on the S.S. Sinks-A-Lot. In fact most agencies are quick to warn you of the dangers of going with the cheapest option following the drowning of twelve people aboard a traditional junk in 2011. Naturally we wanted to do our homework and visited many travel agencies around Ha Noi until we, along with our new Dutch friends, found one that peaked our interest. The tour we selected included one night on a luxury boat, one night in an ocean-front bungalow on Monkey Island and activities like kayaking, swimming off the boat, cave exploring and water sports for a cost of $120 USD each.
After a 4 hour bus ride, we arrived at the docks and boarded our junk which appeared to be a bit “weathered” from the outside, but was actually quite nice inside. The rooms were quite nice, roomy even, and the top of the boat had a beautiful deck area where we could lounge, meet people and listen to music.
As we set sail into the bay, the dazzling karst peaks began to reveal themselves in all their beauty. It didn’t take Alyse and I long to figure out why Ha Long Bay is considered a world-class attraction.
Our first stop on the cruise was Dau Go Cave where our tour guide lead us through the massive cavern. We were memorized by the unique formations but a bit puzzled by the distinct Las Vegas feeling created by the artificial fluorescent lighting. Our tour guide put an awkward amount of emphasis on the likeness of certain natural rock formations (see below).
It wasn’t all tacky as you can see from this heavenly ray of sunshine flowing through the ceiling leaving all who passed by a little breathless.
Next up Alyse and I jumped in a kayak and explored secret tunnels and secluded bays which had been carved out of the karst landscape over centuries, something straight out of the pages of Alex Garland’s “The Beach”. After finishing up our kayaking adventure, we had the opportunity after a short cruise to jump in the water and go for a swim. It was a great way to get to know the other travellers on the boat who turned out to be just awesome people. We were thrilled to meet several couples who had also quit their jobs to pursue long-term travel.
After a few cannonballs off the top of the boat, we set anchor and enjoyed a well-earned dinner of fresh spring rolls, the official dish of the North Vietnamese people. That evening we relaxed with our new friends on the top deck where we took in the sunset, listened to music, enjoyed a few beers and exchanged travel stories. When we reflect on that night we realize that meeting new people and making friends is as integral to the travel experience to us as seeing the sites of a country.
The next morning we were woken by a tap on our window and a lady on a raft saying, “Hello. You want beer?”
After shooing the sales women away from our boat, the captain set sail for Monkey Island where we would spending one night in an ocean front bungalow. The journey to the island was an interesting one. We learned that the port to Monkey Island on Cat Ba is heavily controlled by the local mafia restricting which buses, boats and business can operate in the area and to whom the local business pay “protection money” to. We were dropped off in front of a restaurant for an hour or so because the “tide was too low” for our boat to make the final journey our resort. Now I’m no ship captain, but I know that the tide is a pretty predictable phenomenon and it just seemed like another opportunity for more kick backs to our guide. This was later confirmed when I witnessed our guide receiving compensation for the money we all spent at the restaurant.
Once the tide decided to “cooperate”, we made the final turbulent journey to Monkey Island. The views were spectacular as we weaved in and out of karst hills, whizzing by fisherman in rickety old fishing boats. After arriving at the resort and settling into our bungalow, we looked out our door, took in a deep breath and enjoyed this view stunning view of the cove.
The ocean was beautiful to look at but unfortunately it was filthy from the continuous dumps of trash into the bay everyday from passing cruise ships. The resort had a young employee periodically swimming out and raking in the rubbish as it floated into our bay; it was a losing battle as more and more kept flowing in. I tried going for a swim which ended with me screaming like a little girl when I touched what I thought was a jellyfish, but was in fact a plastic bag.
Later that afternoon our group hiked over the peak which lay behind us in order to go see the monkeys that made the island famous. We were intrigued as we climbed up steep jagged rock faces, through thick jungle and over streams but as we got to the top we soon realized we weren’t heading to a secluded spot to have a unique experience seeing wild island monkeys. Our tour guide was beginning to climb back down the other side towards a mass of ships and people. We didn’t like where this was going.
As we all slowly crept up to what looked like an open ceiling restaurant, we were shocked to see about a hundred Vietnamese and Chinese tourists huddled around a few monkeys in a tree where they were all screaming, feeding, teasing and even throwing garbage at this family of monkeys. All of us were pretty put off by the total disregard for the animals’ well-being. I witnessed a man make a big mistake as he teased the troop’s alpha monkey by continuously offering and then pulling away food from his mouth and then laughing until finally the monkey had had enough, baring its teeth, launching itself on the man where it then pummelled his head for a few satisfying seconds. You would think after people saw this they would back off and leave the monkey for a while to let it calm down, but no, they continued to laugh and throw garbage at it. I also could not believe that the supposedly government-run area of Monkey Island that sees boat loads of tourists and their money every year, would not have set up some sort of wildlife conservation effort to monitor the area and make sure that the tourists, and more importantly, the monkeys are kept safe.
That evening Alyse and I took a private hike up another part of the mountain and watched the sunset over beautiful Ha Long Bay. It was the perfect way to end our time in this part of the world with its gorgeous landscapes, dazzling caves and beautiful beaches. It’s apparent however, that this area has not yet found a balance between respect for natural resources and commercialization; sacrificing an invaluable natural asset for short-term profit, corruption and pollution, threatening to destroy something that should be experienced by generations of people for centuries to come.
Ross and Alyse