There are dozens of different packages you can buy for a cruise around Halong Bay from one of the hundreds of tour companies or hotels in Hanoi. They can range anywhere from the price of lunch to several hundred dollars, but as always you get what you pay for. I was booking last minute for a spot during the busiest weekend of the year and was lucky to find a reasonably priced shared room on a decent boat. I was feeling a little better by the time the van picked me up at my hotel early in the morning and when several hours later we arrived at the dock and boarded our boat I was excited for the fresh air and gorgeous views. My roommate was a much younger girl also traveling by herself and in our short time together I learned all about her and the family issues she was running away from, but that afternoon we settled into our room and enjoyed some tea as the crew filled us in on the rules and itinerary.
The gorgeous islands and karsts surrounded us almost as soon as we left the dock and it was great just to sit on one of the lounge chairs on the top deck and take it in. As part of the trip we made a visit to an oyster pearl farm where we were walked through the entire process beginning to end. They actually clean and hand feed oysters of a certain age man made seed pearls to ensure that each and every oyster produces something at the end. The process is delicate as you have to make sure not to harm the oyster in the process, or you'll end up with nothing. Dozens of oysters are carefully kept in baskets submerged in the bay and tethered to the surface by ropes. As always, tourists are the prime targets for the retail output of these farms, but some of the bigger and prettier pieces do make their way to on-land shops. I got to pick an oyster out of a tank and crack him open to find the pearl...but obviously I didn't get to keep it.
The view of other ships heading in the same direction from the dock
The oyster farm from a distance where all you can see are the buoys to which
the oyster baskets are tethered to.
The starter baskets for short term growing are closer to the main building
for easy access.
Workers fish out baskets of oysters and hand clean each one to keep
extra debris from polluting the insides and to make seeding easier
Using precise tools workers feed the oysters seed pearls by hand
This was my oyster with the tiny pearl
We spent some time just cruising along the bay and enjoying the views before arriving at Sung Sot Cave, also known as the Surprising cave for juvenile reasons you'll see in my pictures below. The line to get into the cave was huge and it took us a while to shuffle our way into and through the expansive cave, but the beautiful stalactite and stalagmite forms dimly lit were gorgeous and the crowd didn't bother me so much after a while. Our guide walked with us pointing out various forms that resemble animals or people, as well as the one shape which caused the original founders to be "surprised".
Yeah, this specifically lit stalagmite is what all the fuss is about. Surprise!
We stopped at a small floating village and rented some kayaks for a closer view of the karsts and get a bit of exercise. We passed an older Aussie couple in our group, who have been drinking six packs of beer for every meal, as they floated near the starting point smoking cigarettes and arguing about whose turn it was to row. A local vendor floated by selling fresh seafood and then another one came by with various snacks and more beer.
We stopped at Soi Sim island where we had the option to swim or climb up to the top of the island for a gorgeous panoramic view of Halong Bay. The beach was crowded and not terribly clean, so I opted for the climb and as the sun made it's way down towards the horizon, the views were indeed worth the climb.
The crew organized a spring roll making class and a happy hour in the evening and
we got front row seats for the sunset at the bay. Once it was dark the crew invited
us for squid fishing off the side of the boat, though no one really caught anything,
and they tried really hard to get us to do karaoke,
but no one took the bait there either.