I knew Ha Long bay would underwhelm me. Not to be unfair or anything, but even before I got there I already had preconceived notions of the place courtesy of hearsay and my undying admiration for Coron. Ha Long Bay had an automatic disadvantage because of this, but let us call a spade a spade and get to the details. Besides, I do not lambast something without reason. And so, what made me dislike Ha Long Bay? The brown water.
Like, seriously? It is what I imagine the Pasig River would look like if the heavens decided to suddenly drop a set of magnificent cliffs around it. And to think, this place is on the list of world heritage sites. But then again, the water is not just the only factor for inclusion in that list, I suppose. If you stare at those cliffs and pretend that the murky waters surrounding it do not exist, then wow, this place is really something. And then you add the cave with the blatantly colorful illumination and that is probably what would make this trip well worth it. Maybe the water quality is not the real issue here, although it does render a quite disappointing view of the place, overall.
Are day tours available? Of course, they are. I originally thought that you could only access this place via those packages for three days and two nights, but I guess that is a stupid assumption. With backpackers abound, you could clearly choose your own itinerary but to be certain of your fate, just book a tour. With the abundance of tourists frequenting the said tourist attraction, you are meant to find a good tour package somewhere, all inclusive and hassle free. And that is what I did! Surprisingly, there is a day tour option.
I have seen enough of Hanoi and I am thankful that it was a slightly more pleasant experience than Saigon. Ha Long Bay is a good destination to end my Vietnam tour. My plane did not leave for Manila until the wee hours of the morning the next day, which still meant that I had to check in at the airport by midnight. There was nothing left to do in Hanoi unless I wanted to swim in the lake, which I guess was not really allowed. Or play Patintero with the motorbikes, but then again I already had enough of that in Ho Chi Minh. And so yes, when I asked the guest house for day tour options and they suggested this, I just had to comply and paid right then and there.
It seems that everywhere in Vietnam they do this pooling thing, in which wherever you book you would end up with other groups that booked via different agencies. On the day of your tour, the mini bus or van would pick you up at your ho(s)tel, after which it would do the rounds in other accommodations around the city, picking up other tourists. A rather long trip follows until you reach a stopover in a nearby province, in a handicrafts store full of souvenirs to bring back home, and of course, food! Trying to avoid another run to the ATM machine, I tried to save whatever money I had left, which meant two orange ice drops sufficed, which was just perfect for the very hot weather.
You better memorize the faces of whoever you were with on that van, or maybe just the guide because you would be following him around. If you booked a package tour, then you would no longer have any business at the ticketing office. Getting onto the right boat is tricky, as you do not really know which is which until your guide tells you so, and man, are there not many boats docked at that port! I was surprised to find out that this boat was not the usual narrow ones we use for inter island travel in the Philippines. This one is like a cheaper version of a cruise ship restaurant, with tables and benches that remind you of those present at your grandmother’s ancestral home. After some headcount and what seemed to be a never-ending delaying tactic, the boat finally moved. A bit. It stopped again after a few minutes and then we were left floating there. Lunch time!
The drinks do not come for free; you have to pay for your soda or your beer. Everything else is included in the tour package, from the rice to the tofu to the fish to the prawns to the vegetables to the soup. It might have been the best lunch I had in days, veering away from the usual fast food and cafe staples from the days before. The journey to the cave takes around 20 minutes, just enough time for you to check out the roof deck and the cockpit. Just a reminder that the sun is not your friend, so keep your sun block container at hand.
The cave is full of stalagmites and stalactites. As to which is which, I have no idea. High School science was not really my favorite subject. The colorful lighting is just a bonus because when you stare at those rock formations themselves, you are really going to be amazed. We have similar ones in the Philippines and I could say that this one is at least on par with ours. The figures formed, once again, would depend on your imagination. One’s angel could very well be another person’s burger. To each his own! The ascent is kind of steep but nothing that would leave you paralyzed for a day. It is actually a good warm up if you intend to go kayaking later during the day. For more pictures of the cave, just see the corresponding Photobucket album.
One feature I found entertaining was how floating bills were plenty in some of the cave puddles. You see, the Vietnamese do not have coins, which means you would see 1,000 dong notes floating around in there. If you think you have hit the jackpot, let me remind you then that when converted, that bill would just be around two Philippine pesos. Yes, you heard that right. Leave them to the cave. You would not want to look like an idiot collecting notes equivalent to just two pesos in value. Perhaps, aim higher?
It was after that cave tour when I finally saw Ha Long Bay’s brown waters and that eyesore of a steel docking area enclosed by the tourist boats. What I have realized is that Ha Long Bay is a tourist attraction after all, and is a great example of what happens when a natural beauty is hounded by too much commercial tourism. The tourists flood the place, and in effect you gradually lose that factor which attracts all of them here in the first place. Compromise, indeed. It made me thankful that somehow the many natural wonders of the Philippines, which I have had the opportunity to visit, remain to be somehow inaccessible to most people may it be by virtue of location or expense. At least, we get to preserve them somehow. It would be just disheartening if Coron’s waters, for example, would turn into this.
Kayaking was supposed to be included in the day tour package but the guide said we should just ask for a refund because kayaking was not allowed that day. Why? Because it coincided with Vietnam’s Independence Day celebration. Lo and behold, after five minutes of sailing we saw tourists kayaking at the fishing village where we were also supposed to be doing the same thing. The Chinese woman next to me stormed the cockpit and gave the driver and the guide a good dressing down. Hell hath no fury than a woman scorned. It is annoying, really, like seeing a car parked next to a No Parking sign. Or perhaps, in this case, it is the opposite, if it was indeed forbidden to do the said activity on that day.
We then continued sailing and saw more of Ha Long’s cliffs, mini mountains that emerged from the ocean floor in order to give us this wonderful apparition. If not for the water, it would have been perfect. Still, I would say it was well worth the effort somehow. Any activity involving a boat ride is considered fun on my book. My favorite part would be after the sun went down, with me lying on the roof deck as I felt the cool breeze caressing my face. Combined with the motion of the boat, it gives you a sleepy trance that you wish would last forever, until the guide tells you that it is time to get down because you are almost back at the harbor.
Four hours of bus travel by mini bus came next. Exhausting! If you choose to stay behind, there are several hotels nearby. Cat Ba Island, which is almost always included in those tours that are not mere single day tours, is another option if you have time to spare.