We awoke very early Christmas morning to the sound of roosters crowing. This might not have been unusual had we not been in the middle of Hanoi, a city of approximately 3.5 million people but we were quickly learning not to be surprised by anything!
After eating breakfast at our hotel, we were picked up by a 14 passenger van for our trip to beautiful Halong Bay. The trip took longer than we expected but it gave us an opportunity to see more of the countryside as well as many small towns along the way. We also stopped at a very large souvenir shop that sold local pottery and a wide variety of other handicrafts. At one end of the building, a workshop had been set up where embroidery pictures were being handmade. This was a work project for disadvantaged people, many of them quite young.
We arrived at the busy Halong Bay tourist wharf and boarded our junk around noon. As this was our Christmas gift to each other, we had booked the deluxe tour. After a welcome drink, we settled into our small but comfortable cabin then made our way to the dining room for the first of the four fabulous meals that we’d be served aboard. Though the food was incredible, some of us jumped up several times to rush out on deck and take photographs of the amazing sights that surrounded us.
More than 3000 rocky islands rise from the waters of Halong Bay which is both a UNESCO world heritage site and one of Vietnam’s natural marvels. At about 3 o’clock, we docked at one of these unusually shaped limestone formations and climbed up well over 100 steps to the mouth of a massive and fascinating cave which is made up of three enormous caverns complete with stalagmites and stalactites. The cave has been well developed in recent years with lights and a pathway so that it can be safely enjoyed by the many tourists that pass through it. Apparently there are countless other caves throughout the bay area but entrance to most of them is forbidden in order to protect them from damage.
Sea kayaking was one of the options that was available to us when we booked our tour but Richard and I were the only passengers on board our junk who chose to take advantage of this. After exploring the cave, the other passengers boarded the junk again while we and our guide set off by kayak. We met up with them just outside a fabulous lagoon with just one entrance, a tunnel through the rock. As we kayaked through the tunnel, we sang Silent Night and listened to our voices echoing off the rock walls around us. We enjoyed a peaceful paddle around the lagoon while our fellow passengers boarded a small boat and came in for a quick look around then we all returned to the junk which was now anchored for the night. As the sun set over the bay, we relaxed on board until supper, another wonderful feast, was served by candlelight. The water was dead calm and the lights of several other junks reflected off it beautifully.
We shared the junk with fifteen other passengers, mainly French, including two families with children. Our Vietnamese guide, however, spoke fairly good English. He seemed to take quite a liking to us and as we visited that evening, he willingly shared his concerns about the corruption of the Vietnamese government and the plight of his people. We learned that in his youth he tried to escape Vietnam as one of the boat people but after reaching Hong Kong, was sent back and endured many years of regular interrogation by the police. He talked of how difficult it was to decide to bring children into such a world. He now has two, aged 8 and 10. What impressed us most was the fact that this young man constantly had a smile on his face and whistled and sang as he paddled his kayak. We saw this repeatedly throughout our trip; people who have so little and who truly don’t know what their future holds living for the moment and doing it joyfully.
Following a good sleep and an early breakfast, we set off again by kayak rendezvousing with the junk and our fellow passengers at a sandy beach on one of the islands for a climb to the top where we were able to enjoy spectacular views of the bay. North Vietnam is a bit too chilly for swimming at this time of year but I did go wading before climbing back aboard the junk!
After an early lunch, we arrived back at the wharf, transferred to another van and headed back to Hanoi. That evening we attended a performance at the Water Puppetry Theatre. This unique art form originated in the rice paddies of North Vietnam more than 1000 years ago. The large wooden puppets are manipulated by puppeteers who are themselves standing in water but hidden from view behind a curtain. The performances are accompanied by music played on traditional instruments. After the performance, we stopped at a nearby KFC (the only North American fast food chain that we saw in Vietnam) for a snack then took a cyclo, a bicyle powered rickshaw, back to our hotel.