Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Halong Bay, Vietnam: 
Great to be there, but no good access

A series of stories about my family's trip to China and Vietnam over Christmas, 2010, continues here with our departure from Hanoi to reach Halong Bay where we had booked two days and one night aboard a fancy fake junk.

We checked out of the Luxor Hotel, Hanoi, with some confusion over cost, but I figured we would work it out on our return the following afternoon.  This was December 23rd, 2010.  We were looking forward to our Halong Bay trip and then getting back to Hanoi to witness the Vietnamese version of Christmas.

The Luxor had told us to be in the lobby at 7:00 AM to meet the mini-bus that would take us to Halong Bay, but it didn't arrive until 7:50 and then made another stop at the Hilton before finally heading east at 8:10 AM.  We arrived four hours later at the dock to meet our boat, stopping once en route to answer nature's call at a typical Southeast Asian merchandise hawker, this one specializing in all sorts of marble and stone items.  I was amused at a large bust of a Native American chief in full-feathered headdress; it seemed so out of place.

Along the way I enjoyed soaking in the local rural scenes, though much of it was punctuated by traffic congestion, trash and debris, and beat-up roads.  It was a wearying journey, and there seems to be no alternative.  A rail line appears to parallel the road much of the way, presumably originating in Hanoi, but there's no passenger train service, and there is no air service, either.  I suppose a larger bus with more comfortable amenities and its own lavatory would have made the journey less tedious.  As it is, a hired mini-bus, taxi, or public bus is the way everyone gets to Halong Bay, rich or poor.

Arrival procedures at Halong Bay were disorganized and confusing, and I had a flashback of similar chaotic scenes in The Philippines.  It was made worse because it began to pour with rain.  At least it was a warm rain.  After leaving the bus, we all huddled into a waiting room in what appeared to function as a modest terminal building and waited for our particular boat number to be called.  I kept our luggage close and watched it.

After an hour of waiting, the crew of our Indochina Sails fake junk named "Premium" found us and escorted under umbrellas to a lighter which ferried us from the dock to the boat anchored offshore a bit.  Our staterooms,106 and 108, were on the lower deck very close to the waterline.  They were huge, as were the luxuriously-appointed bath rooms.  The interior wood was beautifully detailed with a teak look (and probably was teak); only the occasional whiff of diesel fuel dampened the sense that we were traveling in style.

After all passengers had been shown to their rooms and were settled in, we were called for a late lunch in the upstairs dining room.  My wife and I were thrilled with the elegant presentation of the enormous buffet spread out before us, but the flavors of every selection were bland and mediocre.  Our kids were not so picky and had their fill.  The other meals were no better, but the crew was invariably polite and kind, and that made the experience aboard our big fat fake junk a delight nonetheless.  Looking back, I can say the Vietnamese people were all polite to us, wherever we were.

The lumbering boat got underway with a few ferryboat-like shudders and with the muffled roar of the engines revving up below during our lunch, and pretty soon we were headed to offshore Halong Bay islands.  We stopped twice before dusk and dinner, once at Tip Top Island to hike up to a lookout of the bay in clouds, and again at a floating fishing village.  The experiences were relaxing, and the views from the overlook and at water level were both stupendous.

Dinner was again served buffet style upon our return, after which our son came down with a slight fever, necessitating an early return to our cabin.  Before retiring we enjoyed the early evening vistas of the surrounding peaked small islets that Halong Bay is famous for, made especially beautiful by a moonlit night (the rains had ceased and clouds had passed).  We slept from 8:30 PM until 6:10 AM on December 24th, a deeply refreshing and much-needed rest for us all.  

Our son was fully recovered and hungry, so we bounded up the stairs (gangways?) to the dining room again.  Hungry as we were, the morning pastries were tasteless as sawdust, but the hot tea was good and the staff cordial and helpful as always.  We then took part in the early morning Tai Chi classes on the top deck, a very relaxing and spiritually rewarding part of our overall Halong Bay experience.  Later we took the launch to visit "Surprise Cave" on yet another island and enjoyed a long hike (with hundreds of other mainly Western tourists in front and behind us) through the electrically-lit interior of the cavern.

Arriving back at the fat junk via the launch, we were politely ordered out of our staterooms at 9:00 AM and asked to bring our luggage and belongings with us.  Once again a beautifully-presented "brunch" at 9:15 proved disappointingly mediocre in the mouth.  As we steered back to the mainland, we passed many familiar islets and realized that despite being on the boat for about 20 hours we had not really traveled very far.  We could, for instance, see Tip Top Island from our Surprise Cave anchorage.  The slow-moving junks, in their lazy progression, seem to circumnavigate a few islands not far from shore before turning towards home. By 10:45 AM we had arrived back at the main dock for disembarkation.  

We waited in the same terminal lounge for another hour with nothing to do and were put onto another minibus for the return trip to Hanoi shortly past noon.  Everyone on the bus talked about their trip, and we'd been on different boats operated by different companies.  All agreed that travel aboard the luxurious fake junks with their amusing itty-bitty fake sails and cruising the World Heritage Site of Halong Bay were worthwhile experiences, but everyone complained about how bad the food was.  We agreed.  The bus ride to Hanoi covered just 170 kilometers (about 106 miles) but took four hours--four hours of boredom and discomfort relieved only by another stop at the weird stone merchant store.

We arrived tired, hot, and a little irritable just past 4:00 PM back at the Luxor Hotel in Hanoi, ready for a lie-down and shower before venturing out for dinner.  But we discovered that the Luxor had given away one of our two suites that we'd long ago reserved and paid in advance for.  This caused a great deal of consternation on my part before agreeing finally, after an extended argument with the manager, to take a smaller room for our second accommodation in exchange for a big refund and a complimentary laptop for Internet and email access.

And we were invited, along with all the other guests of the hotel, to attend the annual Luxor Hotel Christmas dinner party that very evening (Christmas Eve) 6:00-9:00 PM.  About which I will write more in the next post, but I can say now that it was a unique lifetime experience none of us will ever forget.

In closing the book on Halong Bay, my advice is:  Go!  It's gorgeous, unique, and worth the low-level hassles to get there and back, especially with the enduring politeness of the Vietnamese people to soften the experience.  

Regarding our specific experience with the Luxor Hotel and the Indochina Sails junk on Halong Bay, my wife and I believe we got a better deal by booking the hotel and Halong Bay trip together in advance through the hotel, but the way packages are quoted, we can't be sure.  We were definitely on a more luxurious junk than most folks even if the food was uninteresting.  That happened because we had, in advance, arranged with the Luxor Hotel to book their "luxury" package rather than the standard package, and the luxury package included both an upgrade to the hotel suites in Hanoi and passage on the fancier fake junk at Halong Bay.  In retrospect we recommend going for the so-called luxury deal, as the price difference was not great and definitely worth it.