Travel Log 2011: Halong Bay

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Matt Mueller

Update 2023: This travel series was ported over from an older blog. In the previous post, I wrote about my time in Cambodia. The content has been left in its entirety. Enjoy!

It's 4:05pm - I just took off from Ho Chi Minh City. I'm on my way to Hanoi in Northern Vietnam. Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam. I was feeling terrible. I had a monstrous headache and that sick feeling in my throat and stomach. I knew I was coming down with something. I had checked my bag so I did not have any Advil or medication. The two-hour flight was a daze. I kept drifting in and out of consciousness.

map of Halong Bay

We arrived in Hanoi and I had a driver waiting for me. The sun had set, but it wasn't fully dark yet. The drive from the airport to the hostel was very strange. It started as a misty, shadowed jungle with one highway slicing through it. It reminded me of that scene in Contact, where Jodie Foster first visits the second space machine, hidden deep in the jungles of Japan. As we got closer to the hostel, the jungle was gradually replaced by more and more houses and shops but no high rises like you would normally see in the capital of a country.

I realized that I had not eaten for over 24 hours, so I wondered if my sickness was from not eating anything. On the drive to the hostel I tried to get the driver to take me to a McDonalds but he barely spoke any English. It turns out there aren't any McDonalds in Vietnam. I was really sick of Pho and wanted a big, Western meal, so I got to the hostel and had a look around. I found a pizza place nearby.

When walked into the pizza place, all the seats were taken. Another traveler signaled me over and said I could eat with her. She was a very sweet 26-year-old from Holland. She had been traveling for the last 5 months by herself, spending 2 months exploring Indonesia. She also visited Thailand and Laos. She told great stories about the beaches of Indonesia. I kept thinking about how Americans need to suck it up, get out and see the world. If this tiny woman can navigate through the jungles of Indonesia by herself, anyone can handle it. So far, I have met 2 Americans - we have over 300 million people. I have met 3 people from Holland - they have 6 million people. Anyway, after a delicious chicken pizza and a great conversation, I was feeling much better. When I got back to the hostel, I booked a 3-day trip to Halong Bay for the next morning. I was exhausted from the traveling and was in bed by 10pm.

En Route to Halong Bay

My alarm went off at 6am. We had a 3-hour bus ride to Halong leaving at 7am. Shortly after boarding the bus, I put in my headphones and passed out. We got off the bus at a marina in Halong. The bay was very foggy, but you could see little lumpy silhouettes in the water, far in the distance. We boarded a junk boat and headed into the bay.

Halong Bay

As we got closer, the lumps got larger and more defined. These lumps were massive rock structures (limestone karsts) jetting out of the water, each coated with lush jungle vegetation. These islands each carried different tunes as if they had their own ecosystem and wildlife. We were in the thick of the bay and surrounded by hundreds of these little islands each taller than 10 boats. The entire sight took my breath away. Halong Bay was one of the main reasons I chose to come to Vietnam. I thought back to a few weeks earlier back in Madison when I did my first Google Image search of Halong Bay. It was hard to believe I was actually here. I felt incredibly blessed to have the opportunity to get up and travel to someplace so incredibly far away and out of reach for most.

Sung Sot Cave

We had lunch on the boat and then headed for Sung Sot Cave - one of the largest cave in Halong Bay. We neared one of the islands that had a gapping hole in it about 50 feet up. We anchored the boat at the edge of the island and headed up. We entered the cave and I felt a rush of disappointment - sure the stalagmites are pretty cool, but this cave is tiny. Plus our tour guide had us guessing what the stalagmites looked like, similar to imagining animal shapes in the clouds. We walked into the next room and my jaw dropped. The entire island was hollow! This cave was massive - it's no wonder that Sung Sot is Vietnamese for "Surprising Grotto". After walking around the cave for 15 minutes, we climbed out through the top. There we got some of the best views of Halong Bay. A few pictures later, we boarded the boat and headed for the floating market.

Floating Village and Kayaking

We soon arrived at the floating village. It was a bunch of wooden huts connected together floating on the water. This is where some of the locals live. We got off and headed over to the kayaks. I kayaked with a 23-year-old French Canadian named Naomi. We explored another cave only accessible by boat and cruised around a few islands. Afterwards we boarded the boat and got ready to swim.

An Evening on a Junk Boat

The sun was setting and we had a bit of free time. The guide dared us to dive off the top level of the boat. Naturally I was the first one to jump in. I hit the water and a rush of salt water rushed up my nose. I remember this stinging feeling from jumping off a high ledge in Jamaica. After swimming for a bit, we had dinner and hung out. In the evening they had free foot massages and karaoke. Everyone was pretty tired so the karaoke didn't happen but the foot massage was incredible.

I stayed up and drank with four British students who were taking a year off in between high school and college. I learned that an enforced drinking age does affect when people start drinking. The British have a drinking age of 18, which means they start drinking around 14 or 15. With the U.S. drinking age at 21, most of us don't start drinking until 17 or 18. I also learned why the British travel in between high school and college while most American's don't. They can apply for college two years in advance, so during their senior year, they can apply for college two years later, giving them a year to travel. This might be possible in the U.S. but its certainly not done very often. They were really interested in the fraternity and sorority life at American colleges. After talking for a few hours, I said my goodnights and headed off to bed. I shared a room on the boat with the tour guide. I thought that would be pretty cool, but it wasn't. He was sprawled out in his bed sleeping long before I went to bed.

A Trek to the Top

In the morning the boat steered towards Cat Ba Island, the largest island in Halong Bay. After breakfast we had the option to either bike around the island or trek to one of the highest peaks on the island. Naomi and I were the only two that went with the trek. Guided by one of the locals, we climbed up the mountain. The trail was pretty much all uphill with sharp jagged footholds. The hike was short but very grueling. In 45 minutes we reached the top - we were exhausted. The guide really put us in our place - he hiked it in pants and sandals. He said he goes up twice a day! The view was stunning - we got to see this gorgeous, mountainous, green island from the top. After the hike, we caught a bus to the other side of the island. There we took a boat to Monkey Island.

Monkey Island

After about a half an hour, our boat neared an island with a beach and resort perched along the side of the mountain - this was Monkey Island. It reminded me of the Manta Ray resort in Fiji. We got off the boat and got our room keys. I was lucky and got my own room. After lunch everyone changed and headed for the beach. I laid out for a bit, played some beach volleyball and started my book, Atlas Shrugged. Near sunset, a few of us hiked to the other side of the island to see the monkeys. The monkeys were notorious for stealing cameras and backpacks. Even at 6 months, they were significantly stronger than humans. With my belongings well-guarded, we hung out with the monkeys. The guide had a bunch of nuts and was drawing them really close. After hanging out with the monkeys for a bit, we hiked back and prepped for the floating bar. The floating bar consisted of our guide filling a gatorade cooler full of margarita and serving it on a kayak. Each of us then took a water tube out onto the water and he came around and filled our cups. It was fun to socialize out on the water, but after one of the guests saw a jellyfish, I was ready to get out. Before heading up for dinner, I met Rachel, a Korean who now lives in Manhattan. She freelances in New York, writing and selling children's books. She struck a book deal with Scholastic and her books are on Amazon and in Barnes & Noble! I was really impressed and amazed by her life and hoped to get to know her better. After dinner, the lobby turned into a bar. I wasn't feeling well after dinner so I called it an early night. The next morning came quickly - we had to be checked out by 7am. It was funny to see the contrast between those who went to bed early (the responsible/uncool ones) and those who stayed up all night (the irresponsible/cool ones).

Back to Hanoi

Shortly after checkout, we boarded a boat and left Monkey Island. The entire day was devoted to getting back to Hanoi, I tried to get some sleep on the bus because I knew it would be a long night. I was going to Sapa that night by train. I learned that Rachel was headed there too, so we booked our tickets together and at 8pm boarded the train to Sapa. Halong Bay was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been - I have never seen anything quite like it. I really hope you have the opportunity to visit Halong Bay someday.

Next Stop: Sapa!

The adventure continues in Sapa.