Ha Long Bay (descending dragon bay) is a world renowned tourist destination, Unesco world heritage sight and I was hoping that it would be a highlight of my trip. I booked a mini tour with APT Travel.
The next morning a bus picked me up in the Old Quarter of Hanoi and shuttled me and a group of about 20 to Ha Long Bay City. At the port we were joined by a second group.
Our tour guide Peter Zoom tried to organize the large group because we needed to fill in a registration form that was on one sheet. His instructions were not real clear so some people filled in the form incorrectly. As a result, we ended up spending about 1 1/2 hours trying to complete the form and waiting at the port. We were the last boat to leave the dock. Not a great start.
Our boat was called Yen Ngoc. Like many of the boats that tour Ha Long Bay the boat was a traditional wood boat, traveled slow, three levels, sleeping quarters and a small staff of about five people operating it.
Once we boarded the boat we were asked to store our luggage at the back of the boat. Being mostly backpackers all the luggage was just randomly placed on the back deck out in the open. We were told that we would not be shown our rooms until later in the afternoon. I thought that this was odd.
The boat captain seemed to be pretty relaxed. Here he is steering the boat through the bay kicked back and steering with his feet.
The initial cruise through Ha Long Bay was picturesque. In the distance you could see hundreds of islands emerging through the bay waters. In total there are over 1600 islands. I believe that these islands are formed of limestone and are a result of tectonic plates colliding between China and India.
The bay consists of a dense cluster of these monolithic islands each topped with thick jungle vegetation, rising spectacularly from the ocean. Birds and animals including bantams, antelopes, monkeys, and lizard also live on some of the islands.
Many of the islands have acquired their names as a result of interpretation of their unusual shapes.
Such names include Ga Choi Islet (fighting cock), Voi Islet (elephant), Khi Islet (monkey), and Mai Nha Islet (roof). 989 of the islands have been given names. We passed by Ga Choi Island, it is the smallest island on the very left side in the picture above. Unfortunately we did not pass by close enough to actually see the shape of the island or to take a decent photo.
Several of the islands are hollow, with enormous caves. Hang Đầu Gỗ (Wooden stakes cave) is the largest grotto in the Hạ Long area. We visited a cave and had a short tour by our guide Peter. I started to get a bad feeling about our guide. Because we were running late he said that we would only have about 30 minutes to walk through the cave. As we were walking and he was talking, he was more preoccupied with keeping the group together than sharing information about the cave. And he seemed to be ordering us around instead of guiding us around. Well we did end up finishing the tour within 30 minutes, then we were pushed back onto the boat.
As we cruised through the bay we did have an opportunity to see a few of the locals floating around the bay on various types of watercraft like this small fishing boat.
Our next stop on the tour was supposed to be a fishing village. We pulled up to the dock of the fishing village but were told to not get off the boat. It appeared that because we were running late Peter did not want us deboard. So we all just sat around the boat. A lady in a small merchant boat filled with all types of grocery items pulled up to our boat and started selling items to the travelers.
All of the prices of the items were overpriced. However they were still cheaper than similar items that could be purchased on the large boat. It seems that there's kind of the scam among many of the tour boats. The meals are included as part of the tour package, but any drink items are extra. And if you bring your own drink items you're charged a corking fee that could be equal to the price of the beverage. But people were still interested in buying drinks and grocery items from the small merchant boats. The scam is that the crew of our boat actually sold the items to the lady first, then she resold them to the tourists. So you could buy items on the large boat that were marked up three times. Or you could buy items from the small boat which were only marked up two times. Fishing for profits.
We left the fishing village and traveled to another part of the bay. When we arrived at the new area we pulled up to a second boat. Half of the passengers were allocated to the second boat and half of the passengers were allocated to the original boat. It was only at this time that we were allowed to check into our cabins, it was about 4:30pm in the afternoon.
We were not alone in the bay. There were a number of other boats docked nearby. Ha Long Bay is a busy tourist area and we are always in sight of other ships.
In this part of the bay we were allowed to swim and kayak. However Peter told us that each kayak must be returned within 30 minutes.
I was paired up with another traveler named Doug. We were provided a tandem kayak and off we paddled.
We came across this bamboo structure that was floating in the bay. Doug noticed that there were strings tied to the bamboo and pulled up one string.
Attached to the string was a cluster of oysters. It appears that many of the villages farm oysters, clams or other types of mussels.
After the kayak and a brief swim we returned to the large boat and relaxed. I found out that one of the girls had been stung by a jellyfish while swimming. It would've been nice if our guide had warned us that they were jellyfish in the bay.
Nevertheless I decided to take everything in stride and just enjoy the moment.
The day concluded with dinner and drinks on the boat and time exchanging travel stories with other travelers.
At new day in Vietnam. There are two big islands, Tuần Châu and Cát Bà, that have permanent inhabitants, as well as tourist facilities including hotels and nice beaches.
For some strange reason our boat waited to dock on the island. I think it must have been 9 o'clock before we pulled up to the dock. Peter rushed us to pack our bags and wait at the back of the boat. By this time the tide had already gone out and many of the boats could not dock at an equal level to the pier. You will notice from the picture above that the dock is about 8 feet higher than the level of the boat.
So Peter asked us to wait at the back of the boat. We waited and waited while he tried to figure out a solution. His solution was to hop from one boat to the next to try to reach a boat from which we could unload. This was not working out. So we waited at the back of the boat for about 30 minutes. I noticed that there was a string of tires hanging from the dock that was used to protect boats as they were mooring. I decided to climb up the tires to reach the dock. After I successfully climbed up the tires and set foot on solid ground the other travelers thought that it was a good idea and eventually everyone climbed up the tires on to the dock.
I was beginning to think that it might be worthwhile for me to jump into one of these small boats to independently tour around Ha Long Bay on my own.
Surprise, the bus that our tour guide was supposed to arrange to meet us at the dock was not available. So we waited at the bus stop for about one hour and a half for the bus to arrive. There was a second bus waiting at the bus stop and I inquired with our guide if we could commandeer the second bus as an alternative. Peter said that we could not because his boss would be angry if we used an alternative bus because our bus was already scheduled. Well, I thought to myself... scheduled?!?
I think that Peter just wanted to enjoy his tobacco and bong.
This is one of my fellow travelers Justine from France. We tried to amuse ourselves by taking goofy photos. After waiting 30 minutes on the boat, and 1 1/2 hours on the dock at the bus stop, our scheduled bus finally arrived.
The bus took us to the entrance of a park.
Here we were introduced to a second tour guide who was referred to as the monkey man.
The monkey man took us on a walk through the jungle and over some small mountains to Ngu Lam Peak.
As we were walking through the jungle the monkey man would scamper over rocks, climb up trees and entertained us with his fan and monkey moves. The great part about the monkey man was that he did not speak a word of English and none of us spoke a word of Vietnamese, but he was a great guide and communicator. He was quite a contrast to our guide Peter. Everyone on the tour thought the monkey man was simply excellent.
After the hike, the bus took us for a 20 minute ride into the town of Cat Ba City where we were able to check into a hotel.
It seemed that our tour group was divided into two groups. Most of the group had paid a budget price of around $80 for a budget tour. About five of us had paid $120 for an intermediate tour. The group was split and I thought that I was supposed to go with the intermediate group since I had paid $120. Well, my tour guide Peter told me that I was not supposed to go with intermediate tour, but that I was supposed to stay at the hotel with the budget tour. After some arguing I decided that I was wasting time. I decided to stay at the hotel and try to work out the details later. I missed going with the intermediate tour to a place called Monkey Island and I missed going to the beach with the budget tour. So I decided to explore on my own.
I walked around the seashore of the island and came across the entrance to this resort.
I walked inside and found this beach nestled in the cove of a bay. I hung out for a while, but it was mostly families at the beach.
I decided to walk around the town a little bit. Along the way I came across these fishermen mending their nets.
This fisherman was bringing in his catch of the day up to the dock.
The bay was filled with various vessels and fishing boats.
The next day we were served the basic breakfast of bread, eggs and tea. Food on the boat and food at the hotel was just average. We were actually served the same meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Breakfast was bread and eggs. Lunch was noodles, rice, vegetables, and some type of meat. And dinner was noodles, rice, vegetables, and fish. Because our group was so large and we would eat our meals family style, the portions for the meals were actually small. There were no second portions. I don't think any of the guys nor girls were ever full after after a meal.
The last day we were shuttled from the hotel back to the boat and then back to Ha Long Bay City where we were reunited with the bus. Then we traveled for about four hours back to Hanoi.
I must say that I was glad that I finally got to see Ha Long Bay. The bay itself is quite unique with the island structures and the geography. However the tour that I traveled with was a big disappointment. I would warn anyone against traveling with APT Travel or my guide Peter Zoom. The tour was unorganize, always behind schedule, subpar, food was below average and our guide was outright mean.
Check out Ha Long Bay, but be very careful when booking your tour. Try to view the complete schedule so that you know what to expect, bring all your own beverages and snacks, avoid tours that combine groups, try to join a tour with a small boat and avoid APT Travel.
I think that I learned my lesson. I'm not cut out for tour group travel.