Early Mornings in Ha Long Bay.
Sunrises in Ha Long Bay are just as magical as sunsets, however they require an early rise. For our second day cruising and exploring the karst seascape we had set our alarm just in time to be ready for breakfast at 7 o’clock, but the sun was already up in the sky when we opened the curtains and looked out over the water. The air was fresher and clearer than in Hanoi and the seascape looked even more peaceful at this time of day.
Breakfast On Board
Our breakfast table was laid on the outside deck again and we were served a choice of Western style breakfast or a Vietnamese soup with chicken. I opted for the latter, while most of the rest went for the toast with eggs and ham. The strong coffee slowly woke us all and our guide explained our day ahead in a short briefing.
Setting Sail Towards Bai Tu Long Bay
The boat had already set sail, well motor actually, as the sails are more for decorative purpose then actively used to move across the sea. For the morning we had a kayaking session planned and we stopped next to some fishing boats in a secluded area in Bai Tu Long Bay. The family on the boats next to ours were still having some food while we put our life vests on and headed for the kayaks. The fishing families used to live on their boats and while they legally are not allowed to do so anymore we had the feeling that a large number ignored these laws and still call the wooden vessels their home. We seemed as much an attraction to the fisher family as they were to us. This area has few tourist boats as only a couple of firms are licenced to cruise in to the Bai Tu Long area.
Fisher Families in the Bay
Our guide had told us that the fisher families live on the boats from the moment they are born and it was quite common to see children on board. They help their mother and fathers from an early age with fishing and daily chores. The children never used to receive an actual school education until they started to attend “floating” schools between 1994 and 2014. For the last few years children of the fisher families between 6-16 now have to leave their boats and families behind and go to boarding schools in Ha Long City that were set up by the Vietnamese government. It must be quite hard I imagine to be forced to leave your Mum and Dad at such a young age and the parents must not only miss having them around but also their everyday help. Once they get older and marry, they live on the boats, usually two in that case, before they leave and set up their own fishing business at around 22/23 years. From our kayaks we could see two young children on the boat and also a dog that kept barking at us.
Kayaking in Bai Tu Long Bay
Jerome was over the moon when he secured himself a single kayak, it had been a huge topic for him as he wanted to kayak on his own rather than in a double. Chris and I shared one like the day before and I had decided to bring not only our GoPro but also my iPhone and proper camera to take photos. They were stowed in a waterproof bag but I pretty much had them out to take photos during our kayak session. Thankfully as Chris is an expert in kayaks we were pretty safe. The sea was very calm, barely a breath of wind and no any waves at all, which made kayaking easy. Chris did most of the paddle work anyway and he even got somewhat annoyed at times by my inability to keep in sync with him.
The Floating Fisher Village
Approaching the floating village we noticed some fishermen fixing their nets, while others were busy with their daily chores. We could just about make out the nets in the sea that form large basins where the fishermen farm the fish they have caught on their many trips but that are too young or small to be sold at the markets. This is surely a more sustainable way of fishing than in other parts of the world, where the by catch would just be binned or thrown back into the sea as fish food. Gliding through the emerald water we passed lots of jellyfish and some birds up on the bushes that found a fertile spot in the rocks. Halfway along we noticed a cave under one of the limestone karsts. Paddling into it we saw the rocks under water and had to be careful not to be pressed against the walls by the waves. The cave went into the rocks for a few meters and Jerome was eager to kayak all the way in. However at the rear it was too dark and without a torch he could not see where to go and so I think Jerome did feel slightly uncomfortable and turned back round soon.
Kayaking with Children
A few guests had stayed behind and while kayaking is a lot of fun and an exciting way to explore the beauty of Ha Long Bay, not everyone feels comfortable in the boats. Children can obviously come on these paddling tours sharing with an adult, but I would consider staying behind with much younger children especially if they are not water confident.
Visiting a Cave in Ha Long Bay
Once everyone was back on board we sailed towards a small island where we would visit one of the caves in Ha Long Bay and have lunch on the beach. Everyone went onto the top deck to lounge in the sun, read a book or play cards. The dreamy scenery of course being still the major attraction.
Visiting an Island in Ha Long Bay
On our arrival in front of the island we could see the beautiful white sand (imported from another beach we later found out) and the yellow and brown parasols dotted on the beach with tables already set for our lunch. Taking the tender boat we alighted on the side of the island where a concrete dock had been created. Our guide led us to a steep path and steps to the cave. The trek up to the cave was not very long but in the midday heat it seemed much longer. Outside the cave’s entrance we got an incredible view over to our junk, the Dragon’s Pearl, and the surrounding seascape.
Inside the Limestone Cave
Once inside our guide provided us with some historical facts and information about the caves. Caves can be found throughout Ha Long Bay and they used to house fisher families over centuries with a safe home. When Ha Long Bay was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site they were forced to repatriate to one of the floating fisher villages or to the mainland in order to protect the sensitive cave system. As soon as we stepped inside the cave we could feel the cold, damp air and were astounded by the magical ceiling and walls that engulfed us. Once our eyes adjusted to the low lights we could see some stalactites and stalagmites plus some cauliflower growths that nature had created over thousands of years. Our guide led us to the left, where we walked up some slippery steps and through a narrow opening into another room, a vast hall, which was only discovered a few years ago, despite people having lived there for a long time. We noticed some light coming through at the far end and strolled along a well-trodden path towards it. Jerome was excited that we had found a secret way out, there we found a thin gap in the rocky wall. However outside we found more steps that, we assumed, were an alternative way down to the landing quay. We turned around and walked back to the group, ready to leave for lunch.
Barbecue on the Beach
Down on the beach, it was lovely to feel some sand between our toes, the tables were beautifully laid for our lunch. Sadly we were not allowed to go for a swim, as regulations forbid the swimming off the beach, we were however allowed to put our feet into the water and the kids went in, about waist deep to play ball. The delicious smell of the barbeque told us it was time to grab our seats. We were served all kinds of tasty seafood, including prawns and sea bass. Vegetarians and people with seafood allergies were offered alternatives but I have to say though they really missed out on some delectable dishes. I am sure the atmosphere added to the overall experience, where else are you able to have lunch on the beach with no one else around.
Before it was time to get back onto the boat we were able to laze on the sand for a while. Jerome and I tried out our latest purchase, a tiny little drone that we could carry with us wherever we went and made surprisingly good photos. It is fascinating to see the world from a different perspective and we were happy with the outcome of our shots. Just before we left the beach we could see other boats arrive in the bay and groups of visitors head up to the cave. Our peaceful afternoon was spoilt by the prospect of mass tourism…
Swimming in Bai Tu Long Bay
Back on the boat we sailed through Bai Tu Long Bay, before arriving in a secluded area where we moored for the night. We could hear monkeys scream in the bushes and trees on the rocky karsts. Jerome swore he could see them, however our eyes were unable to spot the animals. The kids and some adults went for another swim while I stood on the top deck, on watch with some of the crew, lookout for jellyfish. The creatures at times made the emerald sea look like a painting by Yayoi Kusama, with white polka dots. Thankfully no jelly got near any of the swimmers and we all retired to our cabins to get ready for dinner.
The sky that evening was pitch dark apart from the lightning flashes in the distance, near the mainland of Vietnam. Dinner was an extraordinary affair. Our guide had already warned us that the cook had spent hours in the kitchen preparing our food but we were in total awe when they presented the incredible sculptures the chef had created. They were truly pieces of art, two white birds, an eagle and the masterpiece was our junk boat, carved from a watermelon and pumpkin.
Gratuity for the Crew
During dinner the group discussed the impeccable service of our crew on board of the Dragon’s Pearl and contemplated whether we should leave tips for them. In Vietnam it is usually not custom to give money as a token for good service but we felt we should anyway. Rather than giving random amounts we tried to find a compromise on what we thought was appropriate, not too much but also not too little.
With nine amazing courses digested we relaxed with the stars above us gazing up at the clear night sky, sipping after dinner drinks and sad that we had only a half day more on the boat.
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