This was the place that the Top Gear Vietnam Special really sold to me - if you haven't seen it, Clarkson & Co. had to ride motorbikes from Ho Chi Minh City up the length of the country, finishing in Halong Bay (after turning their motorbikes into boats, of course). The shots of this place were just amazing; a maze of huge limestone rocks jutting out of a turquoise sea, it looked magical, and so was instantly placed on the 'to-do' list.
We were persuaded by a lady in our hotel to book a tour through them so that we could leave the bulk of our luggage in our room, which was definitely worth doing. To her disappointment, we declined the luxury tour, and went for the standard three day option - I really can't imagine the luxury option could have been much better as our tour was fantastic!
Halong City is roughly three hours drive from Hanoi, and there really isn't much there to see other than the huge tourist-infested harbour that houses about 600 junk boats and lots of Vietnamese tour guides trying to herd their groups around. It's much better once you're on the boat! As we were there mid February, we didn't see the place at high season, and therefore our boat was only half full, with ten of us in total. It was a mixed bag - we shared with a Danish family with two young children, a young French couple, a middle aged German guy and a young Swedish girl (both travelling alone). Despite being with a scattering of Europeans, we all sat and spoke in English - good for us, but also a little embarrassing that we couldn't even attempt to speak to anyone else in their native tongue. The English education system really should sort that one out.
The first stop of the tour was at 'Surprise Cave' (pictured), which was amazing, the sheer size and elaborate shapes and patterns that have been ingrained into the rock. Our guide showed us several animal shapes in the rock - some were more lifelike than others! Outside the cave was a small floating village, I think it has probably only been there for as long as the tourists have been visiting, where we had the chance to do some kayaking, making sure to avoid the boats and massive rocks of course! It would have gone smoothly had my kayaking partner not been paddling against me any time I tried to steer us anywhere. Hilarious, I'm sure.
The next morning was my favourite part of the trip. It wasn't waking up at 6.30am, it wasn't the cold shower, it was opening up the cabin door to the scenery I had forgotten was outside; sunshine, miles of deep blue sea, and the imposing, grassy rockface that was stood staring at me. "Oh yeah, that's where I am. Cool." The second day of the tour involved disembarking on a couple of the larger islands in the bay. We had the joy of renting some very old bikes, without any gears and questionable brakes, which made the steep hills quite interesting! Once we got to the village in the middle of the island though, it was definitely worth it. There were very few people living there, all in simple houses and huts, where they grew rice and bred chickens and pigs, but yet they had mobile phones and one little boy I spotted was wearing a football T-shirt with a big bling necklace! The scenery was stunning, lush and green, with dramatic hills that looked like they were from the set of Jurassic Park. The second island, Cat Ba, was quite large and built up, and would be our home for the night. It looked as though it had been built for tourists - lots of multi storey hotels, restaurants and bars - one of which suddenly started blaring out the all-time classic Who Let The Dogs Out?, brilliant. As it wasn't high season, the place was almost like a ghost town, but I kind of liked it that way - there's nothing like being the only person on a beach.
It was a truly astounding place, and remained one of my favourite parts of the two month trip, despite being right at the beginning. We left the majestic calm to return to the hustle and bustle of Hanoi.