We arrived at the dock and saw the hundreds of junks floating in the harbor and literally thousands of tourists and tour guides milling about amid the din of car horns and tour guides trying to keep their charges from getting lost among the masses. There we met another six people who were to be part of our group. There were three options: the one night voyage Jim and I had chosen, a day trip with a late night return trip and a two night excursion. The one and two nighters shared two junks run by the same owner. We wound our way through the crowds to the end of the aging concrete pier where the junks pushed against each other vying for the small slivers of space where we could cross the gently moving gangplank and step aboard. With the lack of room to board some people would have to board one junk and climb across to another one alongside (with their luggage) in order to get where they belonged.
We waited over an hour as the harbor emptied waiting for our last two passengers. Eventually someone got a phone call that their car had broken down and we left without them. The main deck area is the dining room where we all ate together at tables set for 4-6 people and came to meet Mike and Shannon, two Americans from the San Diego area who were on their honeymoon. The food was all traditional Vietnamese, freshly prepared and wonderfully delicious. Food is included in the cost, but drinks are extra and priced for a captive audience. The prices seemed high but I guess if you compare it to our $4 cup of Starbucks it is a reasonable deal overall.
Ha Long Bay has about 2,000 islands each fairly small and more like spires of rock or stalagmites rising out of the sea and topped with greenery. They look surreal and something an artist would create but they are real and dramatic. It took a couple of hours to motor out there and some boats had also put up their yellowish orange sails which created a memorable sight ahead of us.
First stop was an island with a massive cave which required climbing up mucho stairs then down into the yawning cavern which seemed as large as a football stadium. They had colored lights on some of the towering stalagmites and tornado looking stalagtites that dramatized the effect of natures handiwork. An element of our exercise plan it turned out.
Later we sailed to Titop island and climbed the 425 steps to the pavilion at the peak. Seems Ho Chi Minh (known as Uncle Ho) met a famous Russian Astronaut who had climbed up with him and he liked it so much he had the pavilion and stairway built. Mike and Shannon left us to go sea kayaking which looked cool but I passed this opportunity up after remembering my own kayaking adventure. We eventually all collected back on our junk and the two junks anchored together in the bay for the night. The cabins were below deck but the cabin doors opened to a narrow walkway on the edge of the junk with ocean only 3 feet away. They were small but pleasant and had private bathrooms and showers with electricity and hot water. Downright civilized.
We ate a relaxing dinner as the sun set. After dinner I climbed up to the top deck in the back to watch the junks all over the bay light up the horizon as the stars brightened the sky above. Later I climbed aboard our sister junk where there was a lot more activity. There were five American students on a college semester abroad (all from different colleges) who had a lot of the usual youthful energy. They had set their sights on squidding. So a crew member brought a light with a bulb and hung it over side between our vessels. The light had a cord which he wrapped around some rigiging and over to an electrical outlet where he shoved the bare ends of the wires into the outlet and the bulb lit up brightly. A net appeared and they all took turns watching for little squids attracted to the light. We did see a few, caught a jellyfish and a small flying fish, but no squids and no one fell overboard so it was a fun evening.
I chatted with Hugo, a Portuguese man who lived in Singapore (and was delighted to find out that Jim had grown up in Brazil so they could finally practice their Portuguese). A Canadian couple, A Spanish man and his French companion. But then there was Ruth. Ruth walked with a cane (so passed on the climbing) but at 84 years old was gamely enjoying the adventure. Her husband had recently died and her two friends had talked her into this trip to Vietnam including sleeping on a junk anchored in Ha Long Bay. It was a delight to see her spirit. Over a 60 year age span in our little ad hoc group.
I awoke in the morning and realized that we had drifted and the junks around us were not the same ones we saw the night before. After breakfast we anchored near the mouth of a sea cave and climbed into the small flat bottom boat we had towed everywhere . A crewman rowed us into the cave opening which was only accessible at low tide, but which also meant the water was so shallow we got stuck for a while in the cave entrance. We made our way into an open lakelike pool with the soaring cliffs all around us.
For the trip back we all boarded our sister junk and squeezed in together for lunch. We departed the junk onto the same worn concrete pier and wove our way through the crowds of people who were to replace us aboard the junks. By 4:30pm we were back in Hanoi in the hustle and bustle of city life.