Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Ha Long Bay

We're away for how long?
Craig writes: Up early for a quick brekky and a leisurely 3 hour mini bus ride through the country side to beautiful Ha Long Bay, One of the new Seven Natural Wonders of The World. Yeh, leisurely my arse ! The biggest wonder is that we made it there alive. The insanity of the Hanoi kamikazes unfortunately extends to the highways of the country side with the added kicker that out here with the luxury of a couple of extra metres of tar under them their now doing 80 to 90 instead of the more predictable and avoidable 40 to 50 of the city. Holy mother of Buddha, a trip on the country highway here should come with a pacemaker warning. Having said that, move your gaze from the road to the surrounding country side and you instantly take a long leap back in time. The country side is rice paddies as far as the eye can see. The landscape is dotted with bent backs and pointy hats toiling from dawn to dusk. Small fragile looking women steer hulking muddied buffalo through acre after acre of stubborn soil. Thick wads of cocoa coloured soil are ripped from the ground by the massive wooden prong of the plough. No GPS guided seeders or harvesters here. They work the land the same way a millennium of generations have worked before them. They do it happily and gratefully. They know no other way and seem very content for the fact. 
The port at Ha Long Bay is a heaving expanse of tourist vessels bumping and grinding against each other. From the small and authentic to the intimidating and ostentatious with their silver service, balconies and spas. There's something for every taste and pocket. Ours, the Calypso Cruiser, to be honest, looked like a piece of junk from the outside. Desperately in need of some love and a paint job there was a bit of a hhmm moment as our little transport chugger pulled up beside it. On board, while charmingly oldie worldly, with dark cedar paneling and clunky banister rails, it was neat, tidy and comfortable. As we were to later discover what ever it lacked it modern furnishings and finishes was to be forgiven for the truly amazing presentation and quality of the food to come. 

Holding on or pushing over?
The magnificent Calypso Cruiser
Smile you guys
A little aside under the heading, "So You Think You've Got It Tough"
Had a chat with our chef, through an interpreter, when we had finished our stay and were back on the mainland. He had come back with us to enjoy the 3 days he gets off every month with his wife. She lives in a small apartment on the outskirts of Hanoi with five other women. Working away is the only way they can save money to hopefully buy their own place one day. He works, sleeps and eats on the boat and works 28 days straight. A bit like working away on the mines back home with out the union perks and for crap money. He gets to see his young daughter a few days a year because she has to live at his inlaws village way out in the country side. They've been doing this for three years. Hopefully in a few more they can buy something around Hanoi where he can get a job in the city and all reunite under one roof. He earns $100 US per month. If he opened a place in Perth, Rob Broadfield would be writing rave reviews and people would be cueing up around the corner. I have heard a few such stories in the short time Ive been here. Phuc a Duc, its a reality check, no doubt. I'm certainly going to be a lot more liberal with my Dong when it comes to tipping from now on.

Ha Long Bay is a sight to behold. Over 3000 islands scattered over 1500sq klms. For
me the highlight was when we were taken on a day boat away from the crowded bays to explore some caves and hidden lagoons by kayak. There was the occasional tourist boat but mostly it was the fishermen from the floating villages on their rough hewn boats dotted here and there wetting lines or casting nets. Hopeful of a good catch to feed the family and take any excess to market. No snappy fishing rods and whirling gleaming reels. No hydraulic winches to pull the heavy nets back in. All done by hard calloused hands and strong bent backs. We kayaked away from our boat towards a large opening carved by the surging tides into the belly of a distant limestone cliff. On the other side was a vast lagoon. Towering cliffs surrounded us. Dense jungle hung from the vertical sides. We were here to find the elusive monkeys and squirrels that clung to the thick foliage. After the boys exhausted the novelty of the echo that bounced around the cliff faces like a super ball we paddled slowly and in quiet letting the serenity and the stillness of the place slowly absorb us. We stopped paddling and sat in silence, descending into the peace. Our little Charlie said it all, "this is the most peaceful moment in all my life". After several minutes of peace, serenity and stillness, but no monkeys or squirrels our guide ushered us on to the the far side of the lagoon where another smaller cave led us through to a much tinier lagoon. Here we found our monkeys and a squirrel. We came, we saw and we headed back to the boat. A brief delay to rescue Christina and Callum when they lodged their kayak between two rocks.. inside the cave. Fortunately the two metre tide had not started to roll in and they were safely extracted. Back on board for yet another embarrassingly extravagant 9 course lunch. Too much food people.
Not us but you get the idea

Life on a water village
Christina writes: We arrived onto the Calypso at about 12.30pm and were greeted with delicious mango and lychee nectar.Our adjoining cabins were on the second floor in the stern of the boat. Above us, the sun deck, adorned with lounge chairs and umbrellas. The bay is foggy but the weather is mild and the huge limestone islands that erupt from the water are stunning.  I can see why this is claimed to be one of the 'new' seven wonders of the world. We had booked a 2 night cruise, and I'm pleased we did. A one night cruise would only have allowed for 24 hours on the boat, and with the two nights you get to spend a whole day exploring the outer parts of the bay and sea kayaking through gorgeous caves. The meals were superb - well cooked and beautifully presented. Ha Long bay was everything I hoped, and more.

Fancy waking up to that view every morning
It's foggy, but not cold. very little breeze in the bay.
Chilli and carrot flowers adorn the fresh pawns
The food was magnificent

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