Vietnam – Halong Bay & Tam Coc with EcoFriendly Tours
With the October holidays approaching Mike was doing his usual careful research into possible options. I had murmured something vague about ‘boats’ when he’d asked for my input, and after a few evenings of clattering keys, out came the proposal - a 3 day/2 night cruise on a junk in Halong Bay followed by a one-day river trip and cycle in Tam Coc. Eco Friendly Vietnams website was very clear and we got fast helpful responses to our enquiries....
With the October holidays approaching Mike was doing his usual careful research into possible options. I had murmured something vague about ‘boats’ when he’d asked for my input, and after a few evenings of clattering keys, out came the proposal - a 3 day/2 night cruise on a junk in Halong Bay followed by a one-day river trip and cycle in Tam Coc. Eco Friendly Vietnams website was very clear and we got fast helpful responses to our enquiries.
We flew into Hanoi in the early afternoon, and after checking into our hotel, we set about exploring the narrow streets. Hanoi’s Old Quarter is bustling and full of charm, with low-rise architecture and frantic street-life. Motorbikes, pedestrians, street vendors and cyclos all compete for road (& pavement) space.
Our first destination was the Temple of Literature, a tranquil place with Confucian courtyards and gardens. Founded in 1070, this was the first university in Vietnam.
The ‘tube house’ at 87 Ma May in the Old Quarter was very interesting. This style of house dates from when tax was levied based on the size of the house frontage, so houses were narrow but reached back the depth of several rooms and included at least one courtyard. This example has been restored by a French architect who became alarmed at the rate at which traditional buildings were disappearing. We were shown around by a charming guide who explained the function & special features of each room. She conjured up a picture of life in the house - a group of men sitting upstairs in the front room playing cards while the lady of the house sat in her workshop across the courtyard, working on her embroidery while keeping her eye on the shop downstairs....mmm, standard gender work balance there then.
Also very enjoyable was a walk across a bridge to the island in the middle of Hoan Kiem Laketo a temple which houses a stuffed turtle – you need to find out about the story behind that one. We were there in the evening as the sun was setting, it was so calm and hard to believe we were in the middle of a capital city.
Very early the following morning we were met at Reception by Ba, our EcoFriendly Tours guide for the next few days. Ba & Lam (I know) drove us the 2 hours out of Hanoi to the busy port of Haiphong where we boarded a fast ferry to Halong Bay – not so fast in this case, it took one and a half hours instead of the normal 45 minutes because the sea was still a bit choppy following the tail end of Typhoon Hagupit. Then a 5 minute minibus transfer from the busy main pier to a small pier in the next bay, and we watched as our junk floated gently up to the pier. We were amazed by the size of it, but the 4 sun loungers on the deck confirmed what we had thought, that we were the only people on the junk. We skipped aboard and spent a frenetic few minutes racing around exploring everything. There were 2 cabins, both nicely presented with polished wood interior containing a double and single bed and tiny but functional ensuite wc & shower room.
We set off, slipping gently between the steep jagged limestone karsts and past a floating village - huts and fish farms, even a floating school. We learnt from Ba that there were around 800 people living in the floating village, most were families who had been there for several generations, originally through choice but now unable to afford housing on land which has become very expensive in recent years.
We moored up in a bay, and swam off the junk, first checking for jellyfish – Ba explained that the large white ones with short tentacles were harmless but the smaller white & brown ones with long tentacles would deliver a painful sting if we tangled with them. James & Mike jumped from the top of the boat splashing into the water, Daniel & I were more cautious and jumped from the lower deck – I’m ashamed to admit I never did jump off the top – the boys tell me it was about 10 feet above the water but it looked more than that to me!
While we were swimming & splashing about the cook was busy and we dried off and sat down to a delicious lunch in the main cabin. The cook smiled from ear to ear as he presented each dish – fresh fish of course, beautiful spring rolls, stir-fried vegetables, squid. Every meal we had on board was tasty with a variety of dishes. The cook was always cheery, particularly when he persuaded us to buy some Dalat wine & then drank it with us.
Over the next 3 days we spent many happy hours gazing at the scenery as we drifted past...I’m sorry that my writing skills aren’t up to the task of describing the beauty of HalongBay. We also splashed about in the Bay many more times, we picked up kayaks from a fish farm where we made a fuel stop, and then kayaked through cave tunnels with wonderful echoes where we dodged the cold drips from the tunnel roof. In one beautiful lagoon that we reached after kayaking through a tunnel we saw monkeys climbing down the steep cliffs, jumping from tree to tree - we sat quietly in the kayaks watching as more and more of them came out from the cover of the trees.
We went on a fabulous jungle trek across a remote corner of Cat Ba Island, part way there we stopped in a clearing and drank tea and ate water melon with the old lady who lived there with her husband. They had fruit trees of all sorts, papaya, custard apples, persimmon, lemons and were growing maize and rice and raising goats & chickens. Ba told us how she would have to walk the tricky path we had come along to take fruit & vegetables to market. Her husband had created the path we walked, clearing a narrow way through the jungle, tying bamboo poles across swampy areas and hacking steps into the steeper slopes. After the tea and fruit we went to her little fish farm and the boys had the treat of travelling part of the way with the old lady in her traditional, round woven basket boat.
One evening we watched the sun go down as we sat on a deserted beach, the boys were collecting shells & skimming stones and Ba told us a bit about his life. He was born near a town called Vinh in the middle of the Northern half of Vietman, on a plain where life is very difficult, with extreme cold in the winter and burning heat in the summer caused by hot winds sweeping in from Laos. He told us how he and his 5 brothers & sisters were often hungry and how the family would eat meat on only 2 days in each year, at Lunar New Year and on Ancestor Day. Impossible for us to imagine such hardship. Mike remembered Vinh well from a backpacking trip we did 14 years ago, he remembered it as a desolate place with people as wretched-looking as we had seen anywhere. But Ba has worked and studied, and worked some more, and as he said ‘Now I’m happy with my situation’ and he’s able to help out the rest of his family.
Ba’s knowledge and appreciation of the natural world really enhanced our enjoyment of the trip, and his playfulness & joke-telling was fun for the boys. He even had Daniel doing some ecological work fishing litter out of the Bay in places where a combination of wind and currents gathered plastic bags – Daniel was thrilled to be contributing something...and wielding a gigantic net!
Because the tour is private it can be very flexible. Ba quickly understood that we enjoyed being active and tailored the 3 days accordingly, other people would be happy to spend more time just relaxing on the boat.
It is a sad fact that many people find Halong Bay disappointing, they don’t feel they see the best parts of the bay and spend sleepless nights moored up next to other boats all with generators running late into the night. These tour operators take a short-term view and are happy to be hauling in the money without much concern for the quality of their customers’ experience. In complete contrast to this, we found that EcoFriendly Vietnam Tours more than delivered what they promised on their website, and both nights we were moored in a secluded spot, with no other tourist boat in sight. The generator was run for a couple of hours in the early evening then shut off, leaving us in perfect calm surrounded by incredibly beautiful scenery. On the second night we didn’t go to our cabins and slept instead up on deck under the stars. Ba and the boys swapping jokes and stories until everyone drifted off to sleep. Waking up the next morning as the sun came over the tops of the cliffs, listening to birdsong and the sound of insects was a real joy.
In the afternoon of our third day aboard the junk we sadly said goodbye to the crew and set off by minibus to Tam Coc. It was a longer journey than we had thought - over 3 hours in the minibus, so we arrived after dark.
The following morning we took a beautiful boat trip, a lady in traditional conical hat rowed us out of the little town of Tam Coc through fields and then out into the countryside – spectacular views of karsts - and through tunnels. As we neared the turning point to go back downstream another small rowing boat came alongside us – the saleswoman was rowing with her feet and using her hands to hold up her wares to show us – lollipops, sodas, T shirts, embroidered place mats and lotus flowers in a vase.
In the afternoon Ba had arranged for us to hire bikes and we cycled out into the countryside, through paddy fields and small villages. All along the sides of the road the recently harvested rice was drying in the sun, and we stopped to watch an elderly threshing machine swallowing rice stems at one end and spitting the grain out into baskets at the other... .so fast that the man operating it had to swap the full basket with an empty one several times each minute. It was lovely to be out in the countryside but it was sooooo hot – back to our hotel for a shower then we were heading back to Hanoi.
We enjoyed our time in Tam Coc, which was a one-day add-on to the junk trip, but it was a lot of driving time and we feel that for people like us who’ve already had the experience of boating and cycling in Yangshuo it’s not a must do.
Back in Hanoi, our final evening in Vietnam was wonderful – a delicious meal in the courtyard of the Hanoi Garden Restaurant, then a 15 minute walk through the narrow streets of the Old Quarter to the theatre to see the water puppet show. It was very entertaining - an hour-long show of around 15 short scenes of rural life in Vietnam and parts of traditional stories, all featuring unique puppets handled with amazing skill, and the water also plays a very important role. A small group of musicians playing traditional instruments accompanies the show. After the show we took cyclos – bicycle rickshaws - back to our hotel. It’s a very relaxing way to travel and amazing how safe you feel travelling at this sedate cycling pace with streams of motorbikes rushing past in every direction. We knew it was important to agree the price of the journey up front, and this was done with a lot of good-natured haggling and the wonderful wide grins that make dealing with Vietnamese sellers a lot of fun...even when you know that advantage will be taken given half a chance!
Summing up, we had a wonderful trip and can’t say enough good things about EcoFriendly Vietnam Tours – go and enjoy!
Flight HK-Hanoi Cathay Pacific/Vietnam Airlines
Journey airport-centre of Hanoi
45 mins by taxi US$15-17
EcoFriendly Vietnam 3 day/2 night cruise on private junk with 2 cabins including meals and transfers approx $620 for four. Overnight and one day tour in Tam Coc .
As Brits we were able to book our Vietnam tourist visa online, then we filled in forms & handed over the fee & photos on arrival at Hanoi airport.
There are different rules for different nationalities, some don’t need a visa at all, others have to go to the Vietnam Embassy to apply in advance - you need to check this out.
Water Puppet Show
Cost: up to US$4 pp
Shows at 4pm, 5pm, 6pm & 9.15pm – worth asking your hotel to get tickets in advance for you to ensure you get the time you want as they do sell out – we had no option but to go to the 9.15 show even though we bought tickets 4 days in advance. Top price tickets are worth the extra cost – ideal seats are 3-6 rows from the front in the centre.
Dong and US$ are both accepted
US$1 = approx Dong17,000
US$20 needed for the visa (US$ per person)
Recommended restaurant in Hanoi:
Hanoi Garden, 36 Hang Manh street in the Old Quarter
Choose a hotel in the Old Quarter - ours wasn’t that great so no recommendation.
Mike and Sue Lee