In his quite decent English, he explained that the 160km journey to Ha Long City would take three hours — apparently the slow going was due to the police — not to worry, if there were no cops around, we were assured, our driver would attempt to speed whenever possible.
The trip included a 15-minute stop at a crafts centre set up for victims of Agent Orange and at 11:00 we reached Ha Long City. Once there our guide promptly got into a 15-minute argument with another guide, and we were eventually put into another minivan and driven to the pier at Bai Chay.
The pier was crammed with boats and after standing around for 30 minutes, our guide returned with tickets and we clamoured over three other boats to reach our (obviously badly parked) boat. As our group was generally agile the cross-boat-obstacle-course was no trouble, though there was trouble to come.
Upon booking we were promised a tour of no more than sixteen passengers, and were surprised to find 11 more people piling on to the boat with us — making for a total of 27 people. They were day-trippers, and those travelling to Cat Ba Island. When asked, we were advised that “they don’t count” as a part of our group because they aren’t on our three-day tour. Twenty-seven people on a small boat made for a tight fit.
Our boat, like many of the budget junks, had a large top-deck which featured hard, wooden sun-loungers that should have had cushions but didn’t. An epidemic problem on budget tours, we later learned. For an hour, we sat and waited to depart, and once underway, lunch appeared. A decidedly mediocre but edible meal.
We visited one of the floating fishing villages, which was definitely a sight to see and some passengers bought seafood from the villagers — the staff on the boat cooked it up for them at no extra cost.
We stopped off at the Dragon Cave where we walked in file with one hundred other tourists, viewing the stalagmites, the stalactites, and paused to contemplate which was which. The cave was artificially decorated with coloured lights, man-made pools and fountains, and two red lights were fixed to where the ‘eyes’ should be in the rock formation that is said to look like a Dragon. Lovely.
Next was an unappealing beach for swimming and kayaking — there was only one kayak and it was never put in the water. Later we found out it had a leak. No worries — the weather was lousy, and no one wanted to kayak anyway.
Our first night was meant to be onboard, but the boat had somehow become “overbooked” and so we were shuffled into a hotel on Cat Ba Island. The two-star hotel was anything but remarkable and we got an equally mediocre dinner and breakfast. In the morning, we trekked through Cat Ba National Park — a challenging climb through beautiful mangrove forests, though lacking in any exceptional wildlife — we did spot goats though.
Thrown off schedule by being re-routed to the island, it wasn’t until late afternoon that we reboarded for our night at sea, and while we were supposed to stop off to swim, that somehow got lost in the shuffle. Dinner was much the same as the night before.
We cruised around for a while before eventually stopping at one of the three designated spots where tour boats are permitted to anchor. The night on the boat was memorable mostly for sitting on the top deck engaging in long, ranging conversations with other passengers over beers. It was a wonderfully relaxing evening, and the bay is a mysteriously beautiful place to be as the sun sets — despite the sound of karaoke drifting across the bay from some of the other boats.
When we retired, the cabins were clean, if somewhat dilapidated. While one passenger found himself chocking on exhaust fumes in his cabin and had to spend the night on the top deck, we were all kept up by the deafening noise from the cheap Chinese generator.
In the morning, four-pieces of bread and a greasy omelette sustained us through the slow tour back to Ha Long City for the packed minivan back to Hanoi.