Saturday, 7 May 2011

Vietnam's Biggest Surprise

Make yourselves comfortable, this could be another long'un.

Jeremy Clarkson, upon seeing Halong Bay, described it as 'Vietnam's biggest surprise.' After seeing Halong Bay I can say with certainty that that statement is the best description of Halong bay. You can look at millions of pictures and read thousands of books and nothing will prepare you for your first sight of the thousands of karst islands towering above the sea. But I'm getting ahead of myself. I first need to write a little about Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam.

A back alley in Hanoi, before sunset
The easiest way to describe Hanoi would be to compare it to a similar city, in this case the best comparison would be HCMC. Hanoi is nothing like Saigon. Comparison done. About the only thing Hanoi has in common with HCMC is the craziness. Hanoi is at full throttle all day and most of the night. Sadly, the similarities end there. Hanoi lacks the charm that is so abundant in HCMC. It is much more business-like and the attitude of the people reflects that. Basically Hanoi is all the craziness of HCMC with none of the smiles and laughs. And everything is 50% more expensive than in the south.

On Wednesday morning, bright and early a bus came and whisked us off to Halong Bay for our 2 day cruise through the karsts. We jumped on the boat at midday and had lunch on our way to the first stop on the tour, 2 huge caves full of stalagmites and stalactites. The cave is one of the first limestone islands you come to, so a full view of the other karsts was not provided just yet.
The first cave, lit in crazy colours
The first cave is more popular with the tourists and was lit with lights in many different colours. The cave was spectacular, but the multi-coloured lights detracted from the brilliance of it and furthermore a fountain had been installed near the exit. Millions of years of erosion by the dripping of water and crashing of waves and they've gone and put a fountain right in the middle of the cave. The idea is ridiculous, not to mention damaging to the cave in the long run.

The second cave was much less visited by tourists and was far better than the first. It was not lit by ridiculous lights and it felt a lot less tainted by people. We had only 40 minutes to explore both caves as we had more to do and see that day so we headed back to the boat to avoid being left behind. We left the cave and the island behind and cruised into the karsts. The karsts are truly amazing. There is no proper way to describe them without failing to do them justice. Limestone mountains with sheer cliffs jut out of the sea and tower over everything beneath them.

The karst islands of Halong Bay
The inhabitants of Halong bay have a story almost as dramatic as that of the islands. Many of the people who inhabit the floating villages spread throughout Halong bay are born there, live there and die there, some never setting foot on dry land apart from the karsts. The next stop on the tour was at one of these villages where we were taken through a cave to a place where we could swim. It is at this point that I would like to add that the tour itself was not that good. The tour operators were misers of the worst kind and everyone on board was still hungry after every meal. For breakfast on the second day we had to share an omelet between 5 people. Sadly, this is a common occurrence in Vietnam. It is a deliberate tactic caused by an agreement between tour/bus/boat operators and restaurants/locals. The restaurant has a monopoly on food in an area and the bus/boat/tour operator brings hungry customers who are then forced to buy food. In this case the boat operator was also the snack stall owner so it was in his best interests to keep everyone hungry so they'd buy snacks.

The tour itinerary may not have been the best and the food may have been slim, but the only reason I went was to see the karsts and they certainly didn't disappoint me. Just being able to see this natural wonder was good enough for me. Spending a night on a boat amongst some of those limestone towers was a fantastic experience.

The next morning, after breakfast, we started our journey back to the harbour. The karsts were bathed in early-morning mist and were even more stunning than the day before. We stopped at the same village as the previous day to do some kayaking in exactly the same place as we'd taken the boat which was a bit annoying, but an experience nonetheless. After a measly allowance of 20 minutes on the kayaks we headed out of the karsts and back to the harbour for lunch. For once we were served a hearty meal and I polished off about six bowls of rice.

The karsts wrapped in a mist blanket
After a gratifyingly filling lunch, I waddled my rice belly over to the bus to commence the journey back to Hanoi. The bus driver nearly killed everyone on a number of occasions on the way back by playing chicken with trucks and other buses, but somehow we arrived intact.

We arrived back at 17:00 and had to catch a night train to Sapa at 20:35, so we showered and caught up with the rest of the world while we waited for the train. At 19:30 we made our way to the train station, found the right platform and got on the train. I was passed out within minutes of the train leaving the station and at 4:45 this morning was awoken and told we had arrived at Lao Cai on the Chinese border. We jumped off the train and onto a bus heading to Sapa and waited for it to leave. An hour later the bus departed for Sapa and 45 minutes after that we arrived.

In the past few days I've seen some of the most amazing sights and some of the most beautiful vistas Vietnam has to offer. Sapa is high in the mountains and we climbed through mist and fog to get here. Upon arrival at our hotel we were treated to the most magnificent views I have ever seen. Terraced fields occupy the sides of the surrounding mountains and mist was rising up the valley. We stood on a balcony above it all, breathed in the fresh mountain air and took in the incredible view. What a place!
Welcome to Sapa!


P.S. I wrote this blog up yesterday, but wasn't able to add the pictures so everywhere you see the word 'today', substitute it with the word 'yesterday'. It may sound difficult, but I believe in you.

P.P.S Here are some more shots of the karsts for your enjoyment:

Cruising through the karsts

A floating village complete with school and bank

At low tide you can kayak though that little opening
You may not be able to see it, but on the right hand side
of the pic there is a cave that you can go through.

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