HALONG BAY, VIETNAM – Lights coming from a few Vietnamese junk boats flicker amidst the darkness that envelope this 1,553 square-kilometer vast of wonders: awesome islands, limestone cliffs and caves within – that has become more majestic because of the calmness of the seas.
In each junk boat are tired souls that have been smitten by the beauty of this Vietnam pride, which is among the ‘New 7 Wonders of Nature’ and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The souls are maybe tired but definitely satisfied, if not totally refreshed after a day of activities – in between sumptuous meals, chit chats, and a lot of laughs – shared with both the locals and foreign visitors, all of whom were strangers that are slowly becoming friends.
From Hanoi’s Old Quarter to Halong Bay
The trip to Halong Bay started at around seven o’clock in the morning, when the blue bus from the travel agency picked each of us one-by-one, others by group, from our hotels of stay in the capital city’s Old Quarter. There was a 30-minute stop in the middle of the four-hour trip, which as per our jolly tour guide, a ‘Happy Break’ for everyone becomes happy after releasing some body fluids. The break is enough to pee, buy souvenirs or some snacks for the whole duration of the tour for options are limited in the junk boat.
The view on the way to Halong Bay was good. Though it’s no much different from the views when traveling around the Philippines’ rural provinces, but Vietnam offers a unique experience. The bus we’re in was full of people of different races: European, Canadian, American, Caucasian, and a few Asians. I happened to sit beside Bing, a Filipina traveling around the country with her partner, Tim, who hails from Canada. Sitting on my right was Peppeine, a good looking Dutch from the Netherlands who decided to explore Vietnam before flying to Tokyo to study for six months. He is traveling with his two equally-gorgeous friends: Renz and Abu.
A lot of buses full of tourists are en route to Halong Bay during our visit. September 2 is Vietnam’s Independence Day so locals are having their time off away from the hustle and bustle of the city center. Locals in scooters (motorcycles) are a normal sight here, and you would be amazed by how four to five people fit in a small scooter, some are even carrying small kids, even babies. There are around four million motorcycles in Hanoi alone. More than half of its seven million people own at least one.
Cruisin’ Around The Bay
After more than four hours on the road, we boarded the ship (junk boat) pass noontime. Our local tour guides welcomed us with drinks, followed by a satisfying Vietnamese lunch. To say Vietnam’s food selection is the best would be an understatement, and I admit, their food was among the reasons why I love being in this country.
Cruising along the bay is an experience like no other. The junk boat has a nice hotel-like air-conditioned room with own personal bath and toilet. Since I took the smaller boat, the dining area is designed to accommodate only 15 pax, and it makes the trip more intimate, a great advantage especially for someone like this writer who is traveling alone. Face-to-face conversations with 14 other tourists, and four Vietnamese crew, including our tour guide whose name is ‘Banana’ was such a wonderful experience. The upper deck provides the best 360-view of the whole islands we pass by. The upper deck is my most favorite place so far, and you know why.
Exploring the islands a bit, we found ourselves in a main island that offers a nice view of the bay after entering a huge cave for around an hour.
We stopped on one island for Kayaking. Together with Hue, a sixth-grader son of the lovely Vietnamese couple Nam and Pan, we explored the surrounding islands through a Kayak.
Hue loves talking with me as he gets to practice his English. His gorgeous mom and dad gave me a lot of information about the Vietnamese culture while on the tour, and encouraged me to explore other parts of Vietnam as well.
Paddling in between islands provided this busy all-formal-with-coat-and-tie professional guy in me to get wet – both in sweats and in salt water, and experience once again the beauty of life and nature.
Halong Bay at Night
Dinner came at 7pm when we feasted with the ever-delicious Vietnamese cuisine: freshly-caught seafood, chicken, pork, beef, vegetables, fruits, and drinks that include the 1-dollar Hanoi Beers and Halong Beers. Then there were ferries telling me to take my mac out to write this piece for this blog. They were so sweet that I found myself typing along while listening to music, wondering why these flickering lights are so beautiful, and why I love being here. Every second of it. This is simply a dream come true. To say Hanoi and Halong Bay are magical is definitely an understatement.
Tonight capped the Vietnam’s 72nd Independence Day commemoration but for the visiting foreigners, including this Filipino writer, tonight is one of those nights we’ve been waiting to arrive. Personally, I’ve been dreaming for this entire visit for years now.
I’m ecstatic. Happy. Coming here is my birthday present, and I would remember this trip for the rest of my life.
Note: The whole trip costs me around USD400 (P20,000) including airfare Manila-Hanoi-Manila, food, tours, and accommodation. I’ll provide a detailed itinerary on a separate post. For accommodation and tours, please visit Hanoi Panda Hotel and look for Philip Nguyen. Featured photo courtesy of crossingtravel.com. All other photos are taken by this writer.