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Andy’s Travel Diary

Wednesday, 21 Feb 2007

Location: Halong Bay, Vietnam

MapHALONG BAY - KARSTS, KAYAKING AND KARAOKE
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Halong Bay was our last stop in Vietnam, and yet another UNESCO world heritage centre, this time natural rather than cultural or historic.

A tour bus took us the 165km from Hanoi to the bay. Halong is one of Vietnam's most popular tourist destinations and a natural wonder of the world - often touted as the eight wonder by proud Vietnamese.

The bay is situated in the Gulf Of Tonkin and consists of a dense cluster of nearly 2000 limestone monoliths, pillars, islands and tiny islets, which rise spectacularly from the ocean and are topped with lush, verdant jungle vegetation.

It is a stunning seascape, providing one of the locales for the James Bond film 'Tomorrow Never Dies'. The limestone formations are range from the bizarre to the awesome. Many have corroded bases and appear to float on thin air. Others are unsually shaped, resembling animals, people or structures, such as Choi Islet (fighting cock), Voi Islet (elephant) and Mai Nha Islet (roof).

We were booked onto a three day, two night tour. We boarded our boat which was called a junk. It was a relief to learn the name did not reflect the standard of vessel. Though it was not one of the luxury boats with white gloved waiters onboard it was comfortable enough, with a sundeck up top and a dining/seating room below. It reminded me of an old steamboat, without the giant wheel on the back.

The weather in Hanoi had followed us to the Bay; it was overcast and misty. But Halong Bay looks beautiful in any conditions and as we set off the scenery looked particularly surreal and mythical, with enchanting peaks rising out of the water all around the boat larger monoliths on the horizon in rows of decreasing grey.

However the weather did mean we would not be able to camp under the stars on one of the many tiny beaches on some of the larger islands as i believe it is possible to do during summer.

Several of the larger islands contain enormous caves. In the morning we passed through a small channel, flanked by immense cliffs into a small lagoon. We docked and spent an hour or so exploring Wooden Stakes Cave, a huge grotto with three large, impressive chambers (some big enough to contain thousands of people. is the largest) and immense stalagmites and stalagtites.

All meals were provided on the boat and we sat down to a delicious lunch of many Vietnamese dishes; morning glory with garlic, chicken and soy sauce, beef and peppers...and french fries. One of the waiters evidently needed to practise his lying however. An Israeli girl who did not eat meat or seafood asked for a vgetarian option. The waiter came back moments later with what looked like leftover fried rice with squid.

"I said no seafood!" she complained.

"That's not seafood, its...er...that's rice in the shape of squid."

"It has eyes!"

After lunch we stopped amongst a tight cluster of karsts and went kayaking in the deep turqouise water. While everyone else explored the area efficiently, Ruth and I zigzagged back and forth for half an hour, utterly unable to go in a straight line and almost getting lost despite never venturing more than a few hudnred metres from the boat. Little wonder that we were the last ones back. It was great fun though especially in such an amazing place. Before we set sail we were allowed to jump from the top deck of the boat and have a swim in the warms waters.

That evening after an impressive dinner, we played cards and had some beers before retiring to our cabins which were small but cosy.

Waking up and opening the cabin door to face the beauty of Halong Bay's scenery makes mornings so much more bearable!

Due to precipitous nature of most of the islands they are largely uninhabited. However, though there are a number of floating fishermen communites and villages nestled amongst the islets, there are also two larger islands with resident communities. The morning of the second day we were dropped off at Cat Ba island, shown to our hotel for the day and then taken on a trek into the hills. Naturally for such an excursion Ruth had to apply mascara, lip gloss, diamante earrings and a revealing cleavage busting top. I on the other hand was sensible and wore skinny jeans and a apir of Vans. I never learn. Reaching to the top of the first hill we came to a narrow passageway through to the interior of the island. The views were fantastic with steep, undulating peaks rising into the distance. From there it was a steep and hairy ascent to the top of the heighest peak on the island, often walking on a narrow ledge (a foot-span across) with sheer drops to one side. The 360 degree perspective from the summit was well worth it.

We were allowed to do what we wanted in the afternoon so Tony, Raymond, Ruth and I hired three motorbikes and drove round the island along impressive coastal roads. In the evening our freedom was revoked and we were all taken to a karaoke bar.

"I'm not singing!" I said, "I absolutely refuse!"

Half a beer later and the night had turned into 'An Evening with Andrew Legon'. I completely hogged the microphone, even snatching it off people i deemed not worthy, and sang a medley of songs that displayed my vocal talents to their fullest. The following is a list of songs i am sure Ruth never wants to hear again:

Copa Cabana,
Frosty the Snowman,
Que Sara,
Ice Ice Baby,
Achy Breaky Song,
Climb Every Mountain,
Champange Supernova (which i don;t think has ever sounded so good).

The final day was spent heading back to the mainland. The weather had finally picked up, so Ruth and I sat on the top deck enjoying the sun and listening to the music.

Halong Bay was a great end to the journey Ruth and I had set out upon in Bangkok. We headed back to Hanoi where we would part company (probably a relief for Ruth after my singing).