From the chaos of Hanoi to the calm of Ha Long Bay

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Sailing out in the bay

Never having been to Vietnam before, we were unaware of the traffic rules in the country. Actually, there really doesn’t seem to be any, other than you ‘should’ stay to your side of the road and at most junctions, no one has any precedent over another.  With mopeds, scooters and bikes outnumbering cars by at least ten to one, it makes for really interesting journeys and, as the SAS so succinctly puts it, who dares wins!

Four full-on hours of travelling tension in Vietnam’s chaotic traffic – and for what? For a 2 night & 3 day voyage –  a cruise around Ha Long Bay. Was it worth it? Oh yes, indubitably my dear Watson.

So why go on a cruise? Basically, I’d heard about Bhaya Cruises and how they were making a difference to the local community and environment, and they invited me for a 2 night/3 day cruise to see what it was all about. Also, it would be another first – I’ve never been on a cruise before. Big smile as I tick another one off the bucket list. Two actually, first time in Vietnam.

The ship's manager, Albert Long, at the Cat Ba village which Bhaya Cruises supports.

The ship’s manager, Albert Long, at the Cat Ba village which Bhaya Cruises supports.

Conscious travel/tourism is good, local is good, responsible is good & sustainable is pretty good too! Not something you would expect from a cruise company; but when they all come together, it’s time to let people know! The Au Co II, Gulf of Tonkin, the newest vessel in the portfolio of Bhaya Cruises, is just a few months old and has 32 cabins, all with their own balcony or terrace. We were picked up from our hotel in Hanoi at 08.00 hours and the minibus picked up another three couples, then off we went.  As I said, four hours of driving, with a comfort stop at a restaurant. Situated within an enormous warehouse, it morphed into an Aladdin’s cave, full of goodies for the tourists to choose from.  Ha Long Bay port was a complete surprise; I’m not sure what was expected but not a newly built resort, highly organised and looking a little like an airport concourse inside. Much building and development is ongoing. Perhaps this was going to be a very slick and commercial affair, but we need not have feared so.

We were warmly welcomed and taken out to the beautiful ship, where a second genuine greeting on board was waiting from the crew. Heading out into Ha Long Bay proved to be magical. Nearly two thousand sandstone islands rise majestically from the water, ranging from single very tiny ones to immense ranges. And it wasn’t just my imagination that saw dragons and lions and all manner of wondrous shapes there in the different rocks.

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Floating village

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The women from the floating village coming to get us

We were taken out to see the floating village and the girls rowed out to collect us in their bamboo boats. Bhaya Cruises has been instrumental in setting up a school for the children and continues to support it.  The village has been there since the people who first founded it, hid from wars and hardship,made their homes there.

Returning to the ship there was a Vietnamese Tea Ceremony by the bar, love the fresh green tea.

The next day I got up early to do Tai Chi – 6.15 in the morning on the top deck of the ship, surrounded by mist and magical islands, it was quite surreal. My instructor was a delightful young man and I say ‘my’ in a very possessive way as I was the only pupil! There were three stages, the warm up, the body and the breathing. It was over in just minutes, seemingly, and then it was time for breakfast.

View Bhaya kayak.jpg in slide showAfter breakfast we sailed to another part of Ha Long Bay and stopped so that we could go kayaking, swimming or just chill on board. Tim and I chose to go kayaking, another first! Fascinating rhythm when you finally get it right, the pic is of us before that point! Great fun and wonderful exercise, so they say! Seriously though, it was another first for me and it was a most excellent adventure.

Lunch on board, as with all the meals, followed the five elements of Fire, Water, Earth, Wood and Metal – and yes, that did mean that lunch and dinner were five course affairs! The chef and his team have to be mentioned here, we all fell in love with the cooking.

Bhaya girls fishingIn the afternoon, we were taken to the village of Cat Ba, which is the only village on the islands. Cat Ba is supported by Bhaya Cruises too. The village has been given the tools and the seeds to grow and harvest organic crops and then the cruise line buys them at market price. I shall write more about this later. Bhaya Water buffaloThe walk to the village was five kilometres from the jetty, great exercise and we saw the girls out fishing, the girls working in the fields, in fact it would appear the female of the species does most of the hard work.

We were privileged to see a local wedding there, between one of the crew and her beau. Quite a few of the crew come from the village; strengthening the ties between the two communities of island and cruise ship. The photo shows the bride & groom with Albert Long (in red top), the Cruise Manager. Bhaya weddingWe were commenting on how very young the couple looked, however, we found out they were 24 and 25.

We enjoyed a fabulous dinner with Steve and Bev Norgate, from the shire of Gloucester; Gil and Sally, also from old Blighty, and Kathy and Mike Gagnon from the United States of America. Much merriment was had.

When we had returned to the ship, we were given a cookery demonstration by the superb head chef. We learnt how to cook Vietnamese Spring Rolls (Nem Ran) and exceedingly good they were too :-)  Later there was also a visit to the bridge and the engine room. For some odd reason, I expected to see a ship’s wheel, not a gps system! To sleep amidst all these fabulous islands was magical.

Day 3, the final day, saw me up to do the Tai Chi again, makes you feel so good. I had company as well, the lovely Kathy was there.

View Bhaya cave me & tim.After a light breakfast, we departed for a visit to Sung Sot Cave, a magnificent place to which we had to climb many steps – some of us were huffing and puffing more than others! The stalactites and stalagmites were incredible – I always say stalagmites have the ‘m’ for mountains which go up from the ground, to remind myself which is which!

This post could become a short story, there was so much to take in, so much to see and do, but most of all there was harmony, happiness and hospitality.  A winning combination. And if you get a chance to visit Ha Long Bay, I would strongly recommend you take a trip with Bhaya Cruises – they’re the best!