We started the day with breakfast in the Lounge, followed by a quick checkout of the Sofitel Metrapole where we’ve stayed the last three nights. After staying in such a luxurious place, it was hard saying goodbye! The hotel staff even up to our final moments boarding the bus were there to assist us.
Boarding the ‘orange’ bus with our AMA Waterways family, we left promptly at 8:15am for a 4 hour drive to Halong Bay. Our guide recommended we put our seat belts on as the freeways can be quite bumpy with unexpected stops.
Along the way we passed rice fields, rivers, roadside vendors, and lots of large factories. Our local tour guide for Hanoi traveled with us to Halong Bay and later would see us off at the airport. He had been a tour guide for 10 years, and told us stories about is family, how he learned English, both in school, as well as early jobs as a waiter, work on Star cruises, and even a card dealer. He spoke about Communism and how Vietnam has changed dramatically since 1986, and more recently in 2000 after president Bill Clinton visited and opened up trade channels, boosting the economy.
About half way to Halong Bay, we made a ‘Happy Stop’ stop at a Vietnamese Market. Market is not the best word to describe it, for it was an upscale shopping area/rest stop/restaurant/silk and clothes-making venue organized by the Vietnamese local people. It put them to work, and they split high quality and local made products. The market was huge, and had everything from small handmade trinkets to a huge Buddha and other statues made of marble.the prices seemed high, but the items were handmade, some of them such as the silk tapestry we bought of Halong Bay, many months indeed.
We bought a beautiful silk tapestry, as well as a silk scarf, and a table runner, all hand-made by local Vietnamese people. We will frame the silk tapestry shown below when we get home, but for now the sales lady rolled it up and packed it well for us.
After leaving the Market, we still had a couple hour journey to Halong Bay. To pass the time, and for a bit of fun, our local guide, Kahn, gave us a quick Vietnamese language course, passing out a leaflets on some common words and phrases. we continued on our journey passing ever changing scenery, small towns, rice field, factories, and of course scooters.
Once at Halong Bay, we lined up to take a shuttle boat out to our ‘Junk Boat’, for a overnight stay.
As we boarded, our first impression was ‘This is not a junky boat’! On the contrary, the ‘Junk Boat’ was top notch – Indeed First Class! The boat was three levels, plus a sun level on top, with floors one and two for cabins, and floor 3 for the lounge and dining.
We were in room 206, and were amazed at the quality of the accommodations! The room was much larger than we expected – (I guess I was expecting a dorm room with bunk beds!) and had a King size bed with luxurious bedding.artwork adorned the wall, there was a small TV and DVD player, phone, closet with safe, slippers and Kimonos. The private bathroom had beautiful tile floor, vanity, toilet, large glassed-in shower, and numerous high quality toiletry items, including tooth brush, comb, razors,sewing kit, etc as well as premium shampoos, conditioners, soaps and lotion.
The best and most unexpected part, however, was a walk out balcony! While not huge, it was big enough for the two of us, and offered stunning views of beautiful Halong Bay.
After getting settled in, (our hand luggage was quickly delivered to the room), we went upstairs for our ship orientation and safety meeting. We had a relaxing afternoon as we slowly sailed across the pristine and calm waters, enjoying the stunning and constantly changing scenery. From the photos we had seen prior to the ship, there were brown-colored junk boats with sails, however now the boats are almost all white in color. We were told that a dignitary in the government had been to Venice and wanted the boats to be painted a classy white, so the were all repainted. We did see a couple small brown boats, and personally i thought brown was a much nicer color than white.
Halong Bay has some 400 boats sailing, and perhaps half the any offer overnight accommodations. This UNESCO site has been cleaned up in recent years, with the Vietnam government removing the homes that had been on the water, with homes for those residents on land, thus offering the people a better and more educated way of life. Removing the homes also cleaned up the water as formerly waste material had been dumped into the water by the residents living on the water.
At 4pm, we visited the floating market there, taking a shuttle boat over to a dock where we boarded a small boat for six, ‘driven’, rather paddled by hand by a woman as we went around the bay. While she didn’t speak English, we heard her shout out to her children who were living on another boat in the Bay. The two little girls were adorable, and waved back to us. The floating market here at Halong Bay today is just a tourist attraction, but a reminder of earlier times when food was sold from the boats in the Bay.
Back on our Junk Boat (our group actually had two boats to the size of our group), we had a complimentary wine tasting hour from 5 to 6pm. There were four whites, and five reds, not the highest quality, but hey that didn’t stop anyone in the group from drinking up! It was our first real opportunity to meet most of the group in a very social and happy setting.
Then at 6pm, the group got even happier, with a half priced ‘Happy Hour’ on the boat! There was a pre-dinner food carving demonstration performed by the Chef. He made fancy decorations such as a candleholder out of an onion, and a swan out of an apple!
This was followed by dinner at 7pm which was quite nice and served by the boat’s waitstaff.
After dinner we walked around a bit and chatted with fellow passengers before going to bed.
”Twas a wonderful day sailing Halong Bay, on a First Class ‘Junk Boat’!