Saleem has been living in Thailand since October 2011, where he is teaching English. Beginning in early March he embarked on a backpacking tour of Southeast Asia, where he experienced the different cultures and lifestyles of eight different countries. This blog is a first-hand account of several of those experiences.
Hanoi acts as a connection point for tourists interested in Halong Bay on the east coast, and Sapa in the northwest of Vietnam. Ever since I had seen Top Gear’s excursion to Vietnam a few years ago, I had always wanted to see Halong Bay and the thousands of limestone islands that dot the horizon.
The easiest and most common way of experiencing the bay is by an organized boat tour. Our bus left Hanoi early in the morning to reach the port of Halong City. Around ten other travelers joined us on the boat, which included our own cabin for the night and cooked meals.
A fleet of hundreds of boats departed from the bay and followed similar routes to the popular destinations in the bay. It was not necessarily what I had envisioned for so many years. The cold weather was accompanied by thick fog and a greyscale view out to the islands.
Without having control over our route, we huddle inside our cabins as we waited to see where we were brought to next. An unflattering cave and a short kayak trip around a little cove eventually led to dinner on the boat, as we sat anchored in the still water.
By the time we were ready to sleep, the crew turned on the heat in our little cabins, so we slept like babies before waking up at 6:30am the next morning. We had to switch boats in order to head over to Cat Ba island, where we would spend the second night.
A minivan awaited our arrival on the jungle-covered island. Seven of us piled in the back and we set off towards our hotel on the other side of the island. The van winded along the coastal road, which overlooked the rocky shore and the valley landscape of the island.
Before reaching out hotel, we entered the Cat Ba National Park were we chose to trek up one of the many limestone mountains that formed the island. Along with a Vietnamese guide, we made our way up the very muddy trail towards the top. Without the proper shoes, I am surprised I did not fall, however there were definitely some close calls.
The trek ended with a slow climb up a rusted-metal lookout tower. Only five people were allowed at a time, as the tower felt like it would crumble at any given moment. The trek back down the muddy slopes proved to be more difficult, so we took our time before returning to the minivan and back en route to our hotel.
Our hotel was in a ghost town. This is mostly because we were there during the off-season, which makes sense, since it is so cold and the bay is not nearly as beautiful as it is in the summer. The downtown area was quiet. A few young adults played street soccer, while other locals tried to sell us pearl necklaces and seashells.
Before the day ended, we took a quick boat ride to Monkey Island. We passed by a floating fishing village, made up of little green houses sitting on little docks along the cascading walls of the islands. There was even an empty schoolhouse that floated among the community, as it was vacation time for the students.
We landed on Monkey Island’s seashell beach, and found ourselves climbing once more up to the top of a mountain. this climb was shorter, but full of sharp, eroded rocks. The gray spiked pierced through my worn out shoes, but the climb was still worth it, even if the weather was no as ideal as we hoped.