Booking in Hanoi
Hanoi has a dizzying number of tour operators running trips into Halong Bay. Horror stories are uncomfortably common so getting recommendations from other travellers and seeking out operator reviews is advisable. The rule of thumb is that bargains are rare and cost will reflect experience. We went for a mid-budget option, booking through the not-at-all pushy help desk in our hotel (the Hanoi Riverside Inn Hotel). US$275 for the two of us included a visit to both Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay over two days, a range of activities thrown in for good measure. Transfer was also included, which seemed like a master stroke as we dragged our sorry-looking selves down to the lobby.
Buses aren't supposed to come into the centre of Hanoi, but our guide, Kevin, cheerfully informed us that they "do the corruption", so that we don't have to walk anywhere. Kevin quickly became known as "Sir-Madame" because, instead of referring to people by either Sir, Madame or their name, he called them Sir-Madame. This happened even in a one-on-one situation and that morning Sir-Madame wanted to talk extensively at an incalculable volume.
Just as I was reassuring myself that this wasn't too bad, we discovered that frequent audience participation was mandatory and included multiple rounds of obscure questions we couldn't possibly know the answers to. Well aware that my attitude was proportional to my hangover, I threw some sunglasses on and just grinned and nodded where necessary.
Once we were at the dock in Hong Gai it didn't take long to hop aboard the launch boat to The Halong Legacy 2, our white, wood-clad vessel which immediately set off out to Halong Bay for our first adventure. Apparently pirates don't hang around.
Keen to micromanage every inch of our trip, Sir-Madame would remind us of our itinerary roughly every 15 minutes, whilst insisting we watch our heads/arms/legs on every object within a mile radius. By this point, however, his frantic enthusiasm had become amusing and, possibly, a little endearing. I started to consider that perhaps, on previous trips, Sir-Madame's guests had complained that he was not attentive enough and now his response was to smother guests with alarming frequency.
Our first port of call was the Sung Sot Cave (Surprising Cave) on Bo Hon Island, so we sat atop our mighty craft, watching islands drift on by whilst sipping potent Vietnamese coffee. The islands, lurching up from the turquoise water, seemed almost temporary like they might float away in the next storm.
That afternoon we were back to doing "the corruption" as we sailed into Bai Tu Long Bay. As a national park, entrance and overnight moorings are restricted unless you're willing to grease some palms here and there. So confident are Legacy Tours in the steadfast reliability of their bribery that they've printed brochures guaranteeing the questionable route they don't hold a license for.
We woke up on day two to overcast skies and some early morning Tai Chi. Whilst you'd think the weather would be disappointing, it just added further ambiance to the already mysterious Bai Tu Long Bay as we went in search of floating village of Vung Vieng. For generations a small community of fishermen have established themselves on these floating settlements and fish farms. We got aboard a small rowing boat, steered by a very happy but tiny local with disproportional upper body strength.
Off on a lap of an island or two, it was fascinating to see the isolation in which these people were living, with the only disturbance coming from the occasional passing group of tourists. After kicking back for about an hour, it was our turn to do the rowing and we hopped into kayaks two-by-two. Having travelled to many a water-side spot, Elle and I had this kayaking thing dialled. Alas, Sir-Madame was enthusiastically offering suggestions on everything from direction to paddle handling. So engaged was he in furiously instructing our group that he fell behind as the instructees made a break for quieter waters...or buried treasure.
When the islands had finished putting on a show, we ate lunch and boarded the launch boat for the last time. The return bus ride was, predictably, not as painful as the journey out and we were back in time for a happy hour drink or two, thrilled with the way we'd spent our last couple of days in Vietnam.