We arrived in Lao Cai and went to a restaurant for some dinner before boarding the night train to Hanoi. Seeing as we were due to arrive at 4:30am, we had a couple of beers in the bar carriage (again, populated only by Westerners) and toddled off to bed at a very respectable 10pm. The train back was much more rocky than on the train there. The last one rocked from side to side, whereas this one rocked back and forth, making staying put in a top bunk far more difficult! Even so, I slept much better now that I’m used to the Vietnamese timezone. We arrived at 5am and walked to the original hotel to collect our bags and have showers. At 8am, we were sleepily bundled onto the bus for our 4 hour drive to Ha Long bay.
About halfway into our journey, our guide bundled us off the coach for a toilet stop which was ‘conveniently’ located next to a Vietnamese version of a department store. It was mostly grotesque statues, lacquered artwork and pricey (but cheap by UK standards) pieces of jewellery. What caught my eye was the embroidered art pictures. I don’t know that the technique is called, but the picture is made up of long stitches, sort of like tapestry but less ordered and with embroidery thread. There were about 30 Vietnamese (men and women) in the shop, producing these pictures. They were copying directly from other embroidered pictures, having already drawn on their designs, and some were so large that two people were working on them. The cheapest was 300000 dong (approx $15) for a fully embroidered piece about A4 size, all the way up to 60 million dong (approx $3000) for about A1 size. God knows how long it took them to make. After wandering round the shop, we were bundled back on the bus and on we went to Ha Long bay.
I was awake for the second half of our trip so I can report back on the sights! There were train tracks running parallel to the road – no embankment, no fences! There were lots of long, tall, narrow houses, kind of like standalone terraces. Apparently there was a tax if your house or shop was more than 2 metres wide, so they all built these odd thin structures to avoid the fee. The biggest I saw was 5 floors high and about 30 metres deep. Most are bright blue or pink, and have roofs on top of roofs, I assume to deflect the heat from the sun.
We arrived in Ha Long bay and quickly found our transfer boat. We donned life jackets (they were so old and so big that I doubt they’d offer any sort of buoyancy) and piled into a small wide boat with bench seating on either side. After about quarter of an hour of cruising through a bay which was full of ‘junk boats’, we arrived at ours. It was amazing! Our guide said it was 30 metres long by 10 metres wide, and was occupied only by us. The bedrooms were on the bottom floor, the dining room on the first floor and the sundeck on top. It was like a floating hotel! After half an hour to get acquainted with our surroundings, our seafood lunch was served. We had huge prawns, squid, chicken (that well-known sea animal) and lots of rice. They served it with a little bowl containing a piece of lime, and generous pinches of salt and pepper. The idea is to squeeze the lime juice into the bowl and mix in the salt and pepper to make a dipping sauce. It was super tasty, especially with the big squidgy prawns!
After lunch, we mooched about onboard while we were sailed a way from the port to see the limestone karsts. They really are stunning. Our guide said there are over 2000 over them. I’m not sure how they were formed. I found our guide’s explanation difficult to understand with the language barrier, so I’ll be googling it when I next get WiFi (and uploading this post!). We stopped in a bay (surrounded by other boats) and jumped on our transfer boat again to go to the caves. The cave was discovered by the French during their occupation. It was big, but nothing compared to the ginormous caves I’ve seen in France. We wandered around inside while our guide pointed out all the dragons, tortoises, and buddhas in the rocks. I got a bit annoyed with trying to figure out how a blobby looking rock resembled a sitting woman, without any information on the geology of the cave or the various rock formations. After touching the lucky rock blob (apparently a tortoise), we were ushered outside and transferred back to the boat. Five minutes later we were back out again for some kayaking around the bay. It was my first time in a canoe since the Dordogne so I was a bit iffy getting in but I was fine once we started moving around. Celine made a very good, stable kayaking partner! The water was a sort of alpine green colour and was wonderfully warm. We paddled leisurely away from the mass of junk boats to more secluded parts of the bay to see monkeys. Alas, we didn’t find any, but scooting into the mini bays which were inaccessible to the junk boats was lots of fun. An hour later we returned to the boat for showers and dinner. More squid, prawns, dressed crab, fish, curried chicken, rice and fruit. Yum!! It was all so beautifully presented, with cucumber flowers and latticed carrot. After dinner we had a few more beers and retired to bed at a very respectable 10pm, ahead of our early start the next day.
Sure enough, we were woken up at half 6 for breakfast at 7am. After toast and tea, we jumped aboard our transfer boat again to go to the beach. We rocked up to a tall karst which was sloping on one side and vertical on the other. Thankfully we were sent up the sloping side, although a no mean feat at 420 (steep!) steps to the top. Lots of photos later, we descended the rock to beach below and dived into the sea. It was lush! We found a dead jellyfish to poke and some sort of large crab-meets-stingray to be photographed with, and then we were back onto the transfer boat for showers and check out.
Before an early lunch, the chef kindly showed us how to make the vegetable flowers which were served with last night’s dinner. I’ll give the carrot lattice a go when I’m home, but I’m pretty sure it’s harder than it looks! For lunch there was more squid, fried fish, beef, noodles and, of course, rice. At midday we were loaded on to the transfer boat and deposited onto the bus ready for our 4 hour journey back to Hanoi. Tonight we’re taking a 13 hour night train to Hue (pronounced hway). We may need more beer to get through that one!
In the meantime, here are some pictures of the flowers made of cucumber, carrot, turnip and red chilli….
…Ha Long bay from the boat…
…a panoramic picture of the limestone karsts…
…and a 3D globe picture of the karsts from the sundeck (hope it works!).