Woke up at Essence Palace Hotel in Old Quarter, Hanoi two hours before the scheduled shuttle pick up ride to the famous Halong Bay with much anticipation. Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the, if not the most, famous tourist attractions in Vietnam and is in every list of every travellers around the world. Known for its scenic landscape, magnificent isles, and incredible limestone karsts ready for everyone to gawk upon in awe while cruising in an extravagant ship, is a perfect destination for everyone’s well-deserved vacation.
Prior to the tour, I’ve been reading about reviews of Halong and it has gotten mixed reviews. From trip advisor, blogs, agoda, to any travel sites, their opinions of Halong seemed to vary and it didn’t quite help. Most of the bad reviews are about the cleanliness of the surroundings, the inefficiency of cruises, and the uneventful “only-good-in-pictures” scenery. Despite of the negative reviews, visiting Halong is still a go since it is included on my bucket list. I just did set my expectations low, so I won’t be disappointed if it turned out to be ordinary.
We booked with Imperial Classic Cruise because the itinerary looked promising and because it has a very affordable price. We were told that we could be picked up from our hotel if we stay in Old Quarter area and so we did. Our tour guide arrived on time and we were the second to the last who were picked up, so, the bus was almost full of strangers from different nationalities whom we would later call friends.
Our ride to Halong was on its way before 9 am and we were expected to arrive after 4 hours. On the way, we’ve got a glimpse of rural Vietnam, a picture of serene, calm provinces that reminded me so much of the Philippines. Retail stores, hardware stores, small businesses, and locals greeted us on the road. There were some parts of Vietnam that were still underdeveloped evident by the rough roads we struggled to pass. People of Vietnam living a normal life, no different from any other countries, were the subject of our curious eyes. We feasted on very beautiful terrain, vast rice fields, unmodernized irrigation systems, under-construction bridges, and open fields which was very refreshing. We knew that we had arrived upon seeing the beautiful limestone karsts from afar. It’s beautiful.
There was a collective gasps of excitement when our tour guide announced that we have finally arrived. We were divided into two groups and asked to get on a small boat that would transfer us to the cruise ship. We were told that we were being upgraded, from a 3-star Imperial Classic Cruise to a 4-star Royal Palace cruise, we didn’t know whether they always do it or we were just lucky.
The ship was a three-storey ship, with more or less 20 cabins, a roof deck, and a dining area. Welcome drinks were served and dining area was arranged so we can finally have a taste of their local dishes. Itinerary was laid out and after lunch we were given 15 minutes to freshen up before we start our adventure. Some took a short rest, but for us, we didn’t waste any time to savour the beauty of the place right in front of us.
Halong was impressive, yes the water wasn’t clear and there were dozens of ships all carrying tourists, but the place, the limestone karsts and the isles, was incredibly amazing. I didn’t doubt for a second why Halong was a UNESCO heritage site and that Vietnam has to be proud for a having this natural wonder.
First stop on our itinerary, the Pearl Farm. The floating Pearl Farm village was where they cultivate pearls. The lovely Vietnamese lady showed us the step by step procedure of how pearl is being cultivated. She showed us different kind of oysters, which I wasn’t aware there were many, and explained the process, which was very tedious and meticulous. It was good to know why the price of pearl was off the charts. Thanks to those patient and efficient pearl workers. At the end of the tour was a pearl shop, showing us the finished products embellished with diamonds and different kinds of minerals, each carrying an expensive tag price.
After the tour at the pearl farm, it was time for some kayaking. When we’re on a small boat, that transport us to and from the ship, we were required by local ordinance to wear life jackets, but to do kayak, it wasn’t necessary for reasons not explained. Kayaking got us closer to nature. The formation of each isle will make you but wonder how beautiful natural wonders are. Those are rock mountains and it was very obvious that the mountains were formed for a thousand years. The water was calm and the silence was deafening. If only we had all the time in the world to just stay there. Paddling and savouring the beauty of nature was something I could do over and over again.
After kayaking, we were given our own free time. Some chose to swim, but were reminded of jelly fish, some chose to take a rest and we chose to stay on the roof deck with a bottle of Halong beer on hand and local chips. If only the weather was excellent, sunset would have made it perfect. The view from the deck was simply mesmerizing.
Dinner was served after 7 pm and the food was great! We shared a table with a mother and daughter from UK and shared some stuff like politics in the Philippines and UK, our travels around the world, our professional life, and some personal stuff. That was one of the benefits of traveling, you get to know so many people from different countries who you may differ in color or race but share the same things and perspectives.
After dinner, we excitedly joined the group for squid fishing, but we failed to catch even a single one. After a couple of drinks, some karaokes and some conversations here and there, we all called it a night. The bay was dark aside from the lights illuminating from cruise ships and it was lovely. So serene and peaceful, the kind of night when you didn’t give a care in the world and forget all the world problems, just enjoying the moment. It sure was a very fine first day in Halong.
For our second day in Halong Bay, please continue reading: Another Day in Halong Bay.