Wed 31 Oct - We got picked up from our hotel at 8.30 - left our cases at the Army Hotel as we'd be coming back in a couple of days & travelled light. Our guide from the first 2 days (Hung) wasn't continuing to Halong Bay with us, but turned up to do a handover & introductions to our new guide Tuan Anh (they work for the same company). It was raining steadily.
Traffic is obviously a major problem in Hanoi with motorbikes everywhere and many trucks. Very casual attitude to centre lines - really just "for information only". Glad I wasn't driving - lots of horn tooting (to indicate to those in front that you're there & coming past) and light flashing (mainly for benefit of oncoming traffic, but also to get attention of those we were trying to pass). No road-rage or even signs of annotance though, all quite polite & accommoding. Not as many pushbikes as I was expecting, I gather the drift to motorbikes has been very strong as the economy improves. Business is obviously booming with construction at many levels everywhere. Police uniforms are confusing - some I thought were Army were police, some I thought were police were security guards & we saw at least 3 very different police uniforms, sometimes with 2 different police working as a team.
About 15km out of Hanoi things are more rural, but it was interesting to have our guide comment on the small villages we went through (which to me looked like quite sizeable towns/small cities). Saw water buffalo being used to plough fields - our guide explained that farm sizes are smaller in the north, more likely to see tractors on larger farms in the south. Lots of coal mining in the area - coal trucks quite small compared to what I was expecting, smaller than many trucks used on building sites in Oz.
We stopped for a coffee at a craft shop which trains people with disabilities (guide explained we don't have to buy unless we like, and the rest rooms are clean). We had a milk coffee (we were surprised (again) to find this is (strong) dripolator coffee with sweetened condensed milk in the cup. Clothes and crafts were of good quality, but time didn't really permit.
On arriving at the boat harbour it was bedlam - tour groups, buses, guides trying to match their group with a boat. Reminded me of Disneyland in school holidays. When I saw the number of junks I had other visions of Disneyland as well - maybe string them all together on a continuous run - but once we were on the water there was plenty of room for them all, althought there are several in every photo I took. We were on the Bai Tho 88 & it was fully booked, with about maybe 30 tourists plus guides & staff - our guide advised there was no room for guides overnight & they'd probably be sleeping on deck or on another boat. Tourists were a lixed lot - we were on a table with a French Canadian couple and a couple from Exeter in UK. The Canadians were with us as the only other couple who spoke english well (although not their preference). Anyway, our table were all good fun. Others seemed to be a mixed bag of Germans & French. Guides sat & ate separately, but popped up to explain stuff from time to time - not always the guide we were paying for either - they just sort of made themselves useful.
I'll do a separate review of the accommodation, but the Bai Tho 88 is fairly new & the cabin was reasonable (firm bed again), with a very strange arrangement in the ensuite with shower, toilet and wash basin all in same cubicle - worked tolerably well provided you left towels outside & took care about not showering the toilet paper.
Halong Bay was stunning although it continued to drizzle a bit & there was a lot of haze. Seafood lunch and later in the afternoon stopped at an island with a large cave. Late in the day we were taken to a bay where we would moor overnight (us & 20 other junks) and taken to see a sea cave that opened into a completely enclosed bay. Light was going by then, so no photos, but we were told the tides would be wrong the next day. Seafood dinner. After which staff tried to sell cultured pearls, postcards etc - quite pushy. We slept remarkably well & it was very calm & quiet on the water.
1 Nov - Heavy rain overnight and raining steadily for breakfast (thankfully, not seafood) But it eased up and had cleared the haze and although still cloudy visibility was improved. Tide was very full, but we were able to walk to a lookout (dedicated to cosmonaut German Titov) - stunning view. Getting on & off the island was an adventure with the tide so full - ended up borrowing a boarding plank off one of the working boats. Shortly after returning to Bai Tho 88, rain set in with a vengeance & we had an early (seafood) lunch looking out through pouring rain. On return to the harbour, we transferred to a smaller and much older boat in pouring rain to travel to the north end of Cat Ba Island - just the 2 of us, plus the guide on a boat which looked like it doubles as a ferry capable of acrrying around 2. Crew seemed to be a family unit - older man and woman and younger man I took to be their son.
Cat Ba Island is the largest island in the group of around 1200 islands in Halong Bay and is also at the entrance of the Red River/ Haiphong Harbour. The drive across the island in a taxi van (in steady rain) was eerie. We saw no other people after leaving the jetty for about 30 minutes and only a few houses. Scenery was quite spectacular limestone country. We pulled into the National Park visitor centre in the centre of the island and sat through a very old/poor quailty video of the park and island (put on by our guide while the driver went to find a staff member). We were asked if we wanted to go for a bush walk (in now quite heavy rain) - we opted not to so continued to Cat Ba township & booked into our hotel, the Cat Ba Holiday View, which is also 3 star but only a few years old (a large and very echoing foyer). I think because things were quiet we were upgraded - room was about 60 square metres, plus a balcony overlooking Cat Ba harbour and esplanade.
We arranged to meet our guide for dinner & in the couple of hours of free time the rain eased to light drizzle so we donned a couple of plastic ponchos & went for a walk through the town - lots of tourist-driven development going on. Got photos burned to CD for 20000 dong (US$1.25) each at an Internet cafe. The young guy who gave us the price copied them to hard drive, put them from there onto a USB drive & disappeared for 15 minutes because he didn't have a CD burner in the shop. We think he went home to do them. I had been fully expecting to have to do it myself, so gave him a tip of extra 10000 dong for his trouble. We used the internet both here and at the hotel but speed was seriously poor on the island.
Cat Ba harbour was extremely interesting - the fishing fleet was in & lots of activity on the boats, fixing nets etc.
We ate at the Green Mango cafe with our guide - a restaurant in 2 halves recommended by him (1 side with Vietnamese food on more basic furniture, other side european food on tables with cloth tablecovers). We ate in the Vietnamese side & he introduced us to some local dishes we hadn't tasted before (not dog, supposed to be a specialty of the island, but he reckons far better places if we were interested - we weren't). A very good meal for the 3 of us, including a bottle of reasonable chilled Bordeaux (white) wine, all for $18.
2 Nov - The next morning it was good weather so we went for a walk after breakfast to one of the beach resorts, took some photos of the harbour & then met our guide who took us for a quick tour of the local markets before going back into the centre of the island in a taxi van. We had a look at the "American war" era hospital built into one of the caves, very interesting, and then back to the National Park for the bushwalk. Countryside is pretty spectacular, although there are no really large trees in the forest here. Trees have only been safe from logging for the past 20 years or so since it became NP. Island is home to some endangered monkeys but we didn't see any.
We ate an early lunch at the Green Mango (european food half - much more expensive) and caught a 12.30 ferry to Haiphong. We were given the option of high speed ferry but opted for the slower, cheaper ferry because it is used by locals - true - but probably not a good use of time. It took 3 hrs to get to Haiphong and was pretty boring really. The ferry was a real old clunker and I could see the engine telegraph was in French - a hangover from colonial era maybe? Haiphong Harbour has a lot of ships spread out over a long length of the river front. Most of the ships were small/medium freighters. Haiphong didn't seem to have a lot going for it as a tourist destination so we didn't stick around.
The trip from Haiphong to Hanoi was 100 km of horn tooting, light flashing driving and took over 2 hours. Stopped briefly at a town (city!!) famous for green bean cake (tases like floury fudge). After checking back into Army Hotel (staff only needed to see passports for this return stay as they already had details, and as we were checking out early), we were taken into town by our guide to a restaurant which our previous guide Hung had recommended and which Tuan Anh also thought highly of - called the Diva Bar restaurant. We were very happy with the excellent food - extremely well presented and tasty. (Diva Bar is only 100 metres or so northish from the Opera House and we'd go back - easy to see why people don't eat at the Army Hotel restaurant if restarants of this quality are a few hundred metres away.) Loved the casual way we were led across the road by our guide - just sort of strolled out into the traffic and "joined the flow" around a roundabout to get across a major intersection near the Opera House.
Got back to the hotel to prepare for an early departure to Hue.
End of Part 2