A Foray to the Bay Kayaking, Caves and a blog from Kate

One of the conditions of being allowed to join the Jo(e)s on the last leg of their trip was contributing to their blog. A grand honour. So here goes. I hope it makes it past the discerning editors.

Ha Long Bay is one of ‘the’ places to visit in Vietnam, listed in all the guidebooks, postcards and blogs and one of the main reasons we came to Hanoi. We’d been advised to go on one of the many overnight boat tours being touted on the bustling streets of Hanoi but time wasn’t on our side, so we plumped for a day trip – four hours there, four back, and four actually on a boat, being toured. And, despite all three of us being well-versed in outrageously long and uncomfortable bus journeys, we gave in to our somewhat middle-class (a sign of our age?) need for comfort and booked a tour bus with air conditioning and almost enough leg room. Travelling in style (the minibus, if not us) was a novelty we could quickly get accustomed to.

We set off bright and early with our guide, Hong, encouraging us to sleep for the first hour (I should mention at this point, “early” was 8:30 am. Not quite the crack of dawn.) However the views as we drove out of the city and into the countryside were too alluring to miss; first of the streets awash with motorbike dodgems, which we were slowly learning to navigate safely, and then the miles of watery paddy fields, being tended by farmers wearing the Jo(e)s’ favourite head attire – bamboo pointy hats.

Hong was an excellent guide, who explained he wouldn’t tell us all the facts and figures we could read online. Instead he gave us a history lesson (Vietnam was once half its current size, with a strong Chinese influence) and a language lesson. The latter was particularly welcome as we’d been trying to get to grips with the language, made up, as far as we could tell, of one-syllable words only. The longest we’d seen was just five letters. We learnt that intonation is key, changing the meaning of each word as needed. (This later led us to a lunchtime debate about language more broadly, including whether ‘embitter’ is a word. It is. We’re nothing if not cultured travellers. Or possibly just a little nerdy.)

The journey went faster than expected and we were soon approaching the bay, its horizon dominated by the iconic islands; round-topped, sheer lumps of limestone, somehow reminiscent of Kata Tjuta in the Australian outback. Each island is said to be the shape of a particular animal – dragon, hen, lion – although we struggled a little to see the resemblance. Perhaps it’s time for new specs.

We then boarded our boat and headed out into the Bay, where we ate a fish lunch before hopping, less than gracefully, into kayaks to get a closer look at the islands. It was a first for me, so Joe kindly (read: patiently) paired up and showed me the proverbial ropes (“maybe paddle a bit harder, Kate” read: at all).

We kayaked through some caves to an inlet, where the sheer scale and beauty of the islands became clear. And of course gave us chance to race against Jo, take silly photos and shout to see how much echo we could get. We were clearly the noisiest group on our tour. I’m sure our fellow passengers loved us.

We then went on a walk through a huge cave complex, full of stalagtites (reminding us of school geography lessons: stalagtites grow down like tights on a washing line, stalagmites might one day meet them.) Hong showed us the different elephant-shaped stalagtites, which even our limited imagination could make out, and a series of three showing the story of Aladdin- the lovers meet, he is banished, the genie rocks up (pun intended). Funny, as the complex did have touches of Disneyland about it, the caves lit somewhat unnecessarily with multi-colour lights, which bugged Jo in particular.

And then it was time to head back to Hanoi. The Bay is beautiful, the islands other-worldly and nothing like hills or mountains we’re used to. They are serene as a collective yet their sheerness makes for a hostile appearance. They are also a reminder of just how remarkable nature is. Which put us firmly in our place and finally ready for a snooze on the journey back.