So as I said I am signed on to an official tour, on the basis that this is the most practical way of doing all the things I want to do, with the added bonus of the social angle. Interesting bunch, like me nearer retirement than gap year: Swedish couple, Norwegian couple (she big into World of Warcraft, has her own all-female guild), Russian couple living in California (Vladimir is an engineer, Marina a Child Psychiatrist), a young Aussie couple (the last four probably who I spend most time with); two Austrian girls living in London, a Canadian couple, our guide Caung, and me as the token singleton. So off we drive in a minibus to the port at Ha Long Bay, at least we do that after getting out of Ha Noi's Sunday gridlock. On the way we see four accidents, one quite nasty. No-one is suprised.
As we get nearer to the port it starts to look more and more like Guilin in China, karst limestone hills rising out of the fields, etc. The port itself is somewhat chaotic, as lots of boats disgorge people returning from trips in the bay and many others commence their trips. We settle in, I have a small room to myself, though it has air-con, en-suite, etc. A posh sailor's life for me on the South China Seas. The boat has an accomodation layer, a dining layer, a hanging-out layer on the roof, and somewhere below all that is the engine, etc. It is called a junk, and may have some things in common with a classical Chinese junk, though I am not sure what. We get under way with the first of a series of extravagant multi-course meals. Good job I can eat most sea-food, as this is largely what all the meals entail, all rather poshly arranged and very tasty, course after course arriving as we motor out into the bay.
Ha Long Bay is stunning, definitely one of the world's natural wonders, a bit like Guilin in China meets the islands of Southern Thailand, nearly two thousand islands in the South China Seas just off the North Vietnamese coast, pirate hide-outs in the old days, a complete maze of fabulous looking islands rising sheer and sharp out of the sea, with floating fishermen's villages scattered amongst them. We are due to spend three days cruising around this archipelago being blown away by the views, punctuated by big meals and other activities.
We stop at a beach and wander around a bit, then visit a large cave system, one of the biggest in the islands. Then a swim for some and admiring the views for others. We end the evening in a sort of lagoon with a couple of dozen other boats, surrounded by karst islands, boat lights twinkling on the water, as we have another humungous fishy meal and drink a bit and get to know each other more. The Canadian and the Russian were discussing cold weather, and Vladimir tells this great story about when he was living in Siberia and it was so cold when you spoke the words froze and fell on your feet, as it were, and in order to avoid complete loss of the town's water supply for the winter, a load of them spent the whole night heating the main water pipeline with blow torches so it wouldn't freeze and fracture. Later Vlad and one of the Austrian girls and I had a conversation about disgusting food around the world. Eastern Siberia and Iceland were joint winners, both for burying stuff for months till it was very rotten and then digging it up and eating it, the former whale, the latter walrus. Yum. And then the very well-travelled Austrian girl and I talked about best places we had been. And all this on top of a boat under the stars surrounded by amazing towering islands. Good stuff, this travelling lark.