BootsnAll Travel Network

Halong Bay: Rib Tickler

I looked across to Bec from my position on the roof.

“Ok, you ready with the camera?”
“Right then. One……..two……..three!!!!!”

I leapt out into the fresh air and found myslef sideways, arms and legs flailing about crazily. Bec snapped away with the camera as I fell. I wanted the photo to be as dramatic as possible but in trying to achieve that (with the ridiculous flapping arms and legs) I somehow overlooked the fact that I was about to go crashing into the green water twelve feet below me. By the time I remembered, prompted somewhat by the green wall rushing up towards me at warp speed, it was too late to turn my body, and I slammed into the water almost horizontal. Sound disappeared. Water rushed up my nose.

After a few disorienting seconds I surfaced, coughing and spluttering.

“I think I broke my rib,” I called up to Bec, only half joking. I treaded water and attempted to catch my breath whilst taking in my surroundings. All around me, sticking up out of the water like black and green icebergs, were limestone karst mountains. There was just one other boat on our secluded little cove amongst the cliffs, and the sound of splashing and laughing was all that could be heard. This was Halong Bay, in the north of Vietnam.

Halong Bay is a little over three hours drive from Hanoi. Whilst it is possible to ake the journey there on your own, we were keen to avoid the frequent frustrations that independent travel can bring, and this area of Vietnam was particularly known for its difficulties. And so, for just the second or third time during our travels, we were part of a tour group.

Choosing a tour operator back in Hanoi was no easy task. There are literally hundreds of companies that promise the best tour – the best food, the best boat, the best accommodation. Most of them, unfortunately, are full of shit. We’d heard too many horror stories of dud tours and false advertising (in fact, bald faced lying), to go with any old tour, so we shelled out a few extra dollars to travel with a reputable company; The Kangaroo Cafe. But even having decided this, actually booking with the right office is a battle in itself. The Kangaroo Cafe, having established itself over many years as one of the best tour operators in the country, has seen money-hungry dishonest folk setting up imitation Kangaroo Cafes in an attempt to steal their business. The sign at the desk when we booked said it all; “Avoid the imitation Kangaroo Cafes in Ma May and Hung Be streets. They will steal your money like they stole our name.”

We paid for a three-day, two-night tour, with a small group of just sixteen (as opposed to the forty-plus sized groups we’d heard about elsewhere). After the morning bus ride, and a bite to eat in Halong city, we boarded our impressive looking but unfortunately named boat, ‘Bai Junk’. It was perhaps sixty feet long, with bedrooms on the lower level and an upper lever featuring dining room/bar/karaoke disco (this is Vietnam, everywhere is a potential karaoke disco!) and an outdoor lounge area perfect for laying back with a beer and admiring the scenery.

As we chugged gently away from Halong city and out into the bay, the limestone mountains that Halong Bay is famous for patientyl approached from the horizon, untli soon we were psasing almost within touching distance of sheer, moss-covered cliffs. The boat squeezed through narrow channels between chunks of rock, and we were surrounded by the dramatic landscape.

Vietnamese legend says the limestone mountains that explode so distinctly out of the green water were created by the swoops of a dragon, carving out the mountains to what they are today. It is hard to imagine that a locale of such unique beauty was created naturally, that it is not the product of some Hollywood producer’s creative imagination.

Our guide took us to what he described as an ‘amazing cave’, called, er, “The Amazing Cave”. It was indeed amazing, and for a number of reasons; it’s immense and imposing size, the suprisingly warm temperature deep inside the heart of the rock, the stupendous views offered at the cave’s elevated entrance looking back down over the bay, and last but certainly a long way from least, the rock inside the cave shaped like a penis and called, obviously, “The Penis Rock”.

Back on the boat, we tried to escape the fleet of others that were anchored outside the cave (because let’s face it, who wouln’t want to see a rock shaped like a penis), and eventually managed to find a secluded area, though still within site of a pearl farm, for our rib-tickling swim. Our evening was spent on the boat, this time in a not-so-secluded cove, surrounded by no less than twenty-five other tour boats, eating giant prawns and drinking semi-cold Tiger beers. Despite the numerous boats nearby, the feeling of isolation and serenity remained, as we chatted easily with the others in the group and watched the sun sink slowly into the water, turning the sky a soft yellow. In fact, it was refreshing to know that all the tourist boats were forced to spend the night in the same area, relieving the majority of the bay of the strain that so many visitors inevitably brings.

Breakfast the next morning consisted of fruit and toast with jam. Not quite the typical Vietnamese breakfast of rice noodle soup that Bec and I love, but this was, afterall, a tour run for Westerners by an Aussie-owned company, and we were sitting on a boat in the middle of a huge body of water.

After a morning in which we visited another cave, this one of the not-so-amazing variety, our boat took us to the wonderfully named Monkey Island. On the journey there our tour guide repeatedly warned us not to feed the monkeys, that they were to be treated as wild animals capable of attack at any moment. As we landed barefoot onto the soft sand of the beach, signs up ahead warned us of the same danger – ‘Do not feed the monkeys!’ After spending three months in Nepal living in the shadows of the Monkey Temple, where monkeys were known to ring the doorbell of our apartment at 5am, just for monkey-giggles, Bec and I didn’t exactly care to feed monkeys. If I never see another monkey durin my life, I can live with that – and this attitude prevented me and Bec from being disappointed when the angry life-threatening monkeys failed to materialise. No bother, it allowed us to focus our attention on the demanding tasks of swimming in the ridiculously warm water, throwing a frisbee across the sand, and snorkelling amongst the rocks, whilst admiring the mountainous terrain that served as the beach’s backdrop.

Another of the reasons we’d selected the Kangaroo Cafe for our tour was due to its assurance that the accommodation on our second night would be top-notch. They weren’t kidding. We stayed on Cat Ba island, the largest of the hundreds of islands in Halong Bay, on the seveth floor of a brand new hotel. Our balcony offered amazing views over the small bay filled with fishing boats gently bobbing up and down. With four others from the tour, we took a water-taxi out into the bay to enjoy a delicious seafood meal at a floating restaurant (or perhaps on a floating restaurant). We selected our fish from the nets that were built into the middle of the wooden barge, allowing the fish to swim in the bay without escaping, and added to that two huge plates of king prawns and some fried squid. Yum!

The next day, after a peaceful sleep in the largest bed we’d encountered for months, all that remained was the trip back to Hanoi, where we would spend one night before flying out.

Next destination: Southern Thailand.

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