It took us 4 hours to get to Halong Bay from Hanoi. So glad we booked the private transfer – much more pleasant than a bus! Our trip including stopping at Hong Ngoc Humanity Centre – a ‘one-stop-shop’ that sold every single type of artwork or souvenir you could possibly want from Vietnam – stonework, lacquer work, silk embroidery, wood carvings, clothing…it was all there. You could do a bulk shop and just have it all shipped home – even the gigantic marble Buddha you’ve always wanted for your Australian backyard! The reason for this workshop’s title was that all staff had some kind of disability or another; a lot of the salesmen had difficulty walking, the embroidery girls were deaf or mute and the manager was missing limbs. There is no ‘Welfare’ in Vietnam, so this centre offers employment and accommodation to these workers, teaching them a trade and providing them with a means of making a living with dignity (apparently, the silk weavers receive 50-60% of what is spent on their pieces). As we were feeling the time pressure of getting to Halong Bay for our cruise departure (and we were only at the half way point in our transfer), we didn’t really get into shopping mode. But we are also trying to bring home only memories from our travels these days, rather than ‘things.’
Our drive continued through numerous towns and provinces; the time in the car passing relatively unnoticed thanks to the new sights out the windows and the constant checking of the state of the rain clouds, in the hope that our Halong Bay experience would not be a ‘fogged in’ one! In one town that we passed through, the railway line went straight down the centre of the main road, and there were neat, manicured veggie patches on either side of the line – talk about using all available space!
Once we had arrived safely and waved our friendly driver goodbye, we reported to the cruise concierge and waited in the coffee shop to be collected with the other passengers and taken aboard the Halong Jasmine. Our pre-lunch orientation and safety talk had us a tad concerned for a brief moment, as our purser kept talking about the itinerary of this one night cruise, and we thought we had booked a 2-nighter! We were not wrong, it was just that nearly all of the other passengers had opted for the single night – madness, in my opinion. In fact, there were only 4 of us in total, who were doing the 2 nights. That meant that we would be transferred to a smaller day boat the next morning for our activities while the Halong Jasmine went back to the dock to drop off and pick up again.
Lunch was a buffet affair, and as vegetarians, we were catered for beautifully. We had started to load up our plates from the buffet (that had ample choices for us), when a waiter appeared with a specially prepared entrée for us both. And this preferential treatment did not stop at an entrée – we had 3 or 4 dishes brought out for us to share, as well as what was on offer at the buffet.
In the afternoon we sailed to Tien Ong Cave for a 25 minute visit. This is a fairly small cave, with lots of nice stalactites and stalagmites and a couple of cool photo ops – a good little visit for a cruise boat with tourists of varying mobility issues.
We then visited the Cua Van fishing village, with a population of about 600-700 people. We were transferred from the Jasmine to a pontoon where these tiny, strong armed women were lined up in their bamboo row boats ready to take us in pairs for a tour of their floating village. Most pleasant. The timing was nice with the kids just coming out of school at about 4pm and showing off for the visitors – children are the same the world over!
The rest of the afternoon was spent sailing around the Cat Ba National Park area, and even at this time of the year when the weather is cool and rainy, and the islands are cloaked in mist, it is easy to fall under the spell of the beauty of this UNESCO site. It certainly made us want to come back and experience it at another time of year, just because it would be truly amazing to swim in this vibrant, turquoise water that isn’t even dulled with the overcast and drizzle!
After our fishing village visit, there was a cooking class going on in the dining room (to learn how to make spring rolls), but we wagged that and went for an aromatherapy massage instead. Good decision. It definitely prepared us for a relaxing dinner, meeting new people and trying new foods. Once again, the chef went to an extra effort to prepare us our own personal dishes – which we really must remember is going to happen BEFORE we visit the buffet, but waiting for our specially catered treats is hard when there is so much fresh, tasty, loveliness in front of us!
At the time of booking our cruise, there were only junior suites available, but we certainly aren’t disappointed with this forced upgrade – for a boat this size the room is fairly spacious, beautifully decorated and the bed comfy. The bathroom is huge, with a corner spa bath with excellent views out the window, as well as a capacious shower with strong water pressure. Having a minibar, small wardrobe, cotton robes and a balcony, all add to the luxurious feel of the Jasmine. The only disappointment – and this was experienced by pretty much every single person on board every boat in the bay – was the law imposed at the beginning of 2012 forcing all boats registered in Halong Bay be painted white, rather than the traditional reddish wood that is still in all of the online photos for all of the cruise companies. Apparently, this is because the wife of the Halong Tourism Manager sells paint (it sounds so preposterous, it MUST be true!). It makes the boats look grubby and poorly maintained – certainly not the romantic traditional images we have all seen for so long. Such a shame.
We cruised aboard the Halong Jasmine, with Heritage Line.