“I thought we were going to Halong Bay?” David turned to me, confused.
As our Indochina Junk Boat exited the Halong Bay port, which by the way is jam-pack filled with junk boats, we were getting our tour briefing from our guide, Tom. He’d begun by explaining that as we all knew (assuming I read the map properly) we weren’t actually going to Halong Bay, but to Bai Tu Long Bay.
Same same, but different.
It turns out that Bai Tu Long Bay is part of Halong Bay, in fact it takes up three quarters of Halong Bay, but the other quarter of Halong Bay is what tourists are most used to. In fact, Indochina Junk are the only company with a license to tour the specific parts of Bai Tu Long Bay that we’d be visiting. We noticed this immediately as we moved away from the hundreds of departing boats, and off into our own stretch of water.
How to describe Bai Tu Long Bay? I don’t want to be irritating and say things like beautiful (ahem – in my title), stunning, or breathtaking, even though it’s all of those things. The best description that I heard was from the youngest passenger on the boat, an eleven year-old named Anton who had already filled a passport. “It’s like Machu Pichu sunken in water”. He would know. While I’ve never been to the famous Inca ruin, I have seen enough photos to tell that Anton was right. From my own perspective, it was like the limestone karsts from the movie Avatar, partially submerged.
As we began cruising slowly through the karsts, our group of 20 were served lunch on board the deck. I felt like I was in an old Hollywood movie what with the dark wood floorboards contrasting the crisp white table linens. The service on the boat was top notch and the food was beyond words. The courses just kept coming. And this didn’t change. Every day Tom would say “and today for dinner we have a cool twelve courses.” On day one we laughed. By day two our stretched stomachs knew he was telling the truth. Most of our meals were the freshest seafood imaginable. I even caught a glimpse of the seafood delivery one day, a little woman in her fishing boat talking to the chefs, handing over the finest catch of the day.
In case we were at risk of being over-inflated from food, there was just enough activity to burn… a few calories. Each day we had the opportunity to kayak in Bai Tu Long Bay. Let me tell you, kayaking is a sure-fire way to challenge a relationship. Oh did David and I ever bicker. Neither of us agrees when the other is the captain. Thankfully by day two we’d come to a kayaking truce and were at least more reasonable with one another – we did have heavy paddles in hand, after all. Bickering aside, our squabbles couldn’t take away from the beauty in front of us.
On our second kayak trip, Tom had guided us into this quiet lagoon with the cliff faces around us about twenty stories tall. Everyone in the group suddenly stopped paddling.
It was silent but for the few birds trilling their sweet songs. I could see our fellow passengers scattered acround the lagoon, big smiles plastered on their faces. This was tranquility. This is what we all came for.
On our last night we were taken ashore to a small island where we’d be having dinner in a cave. Yes, we’re that cool. Tom described how once upon a time these caves were inhabited by the fishermen of Halong and Bai Tu Long, but that since Halong was designated as a UNESCO site, fishing families had been moved to floating villages to improve their quality of life. I can’t help but wonder whether the fishermen agree or not.
I did feel ever so slightly like we were all on honeymoon what with the dinner table set up. They’d laid out hearts of tea light candles and continued presenting us with gifts from the chefs – carvings that he’d worked on all day. I found that ever so slightly awkward…
Ultimately I will remember this trip for the relaxation that it provided, the good food that over-filled my belly at each sitting and the neat people that I got to meet along the way.
Oh, and the sunsets. Definitely the sunsets.
Have you been to Bai Tu Long Bay? Halong Bay? What was your experience like?