Tips for touring karast countryside– actually not countryside at all but a stunning bay area.
1) Don’t drive yourself – the highway is jam packed with every form of transport and people are merciless and fast, honking incessantly. (We saw a gruesome accident which put a planned motorbike trip around the north out of my mind.)
2) Try not to let Halong City ruin it for you – we pulled up into tourist central, a pier teaming with hundreds of people being herded to one boat or another.
3) Bring snacks! We boarded our ‘junk’ (a common term for the boats they use in the bay, amusing to me because I pictured a steel hunk of metal but our boat was wood and quite posh…) and our first meal was splendid, but as time went on the rations of everything, except rice, seemed to diminish. (Shining example: our breakfast they next day consisted of 4 pieces of untoasted sliced bread and a small pat of butter to equitably share between 5 people, hmmm.)
4) Prepare yourself for some horribly destroyed caves. We stopped at a luscious bay and walked through a main tourist attraction, a huge limestone cave system, but it resembled a Disney land theme park. All of the amazing century old stalactites and curtain formations looked fake under the red, green and purple neon lighting. (Tip 4.a.) Bring TONY as your tour guide, he likes to point out every structure, such as; the Snow White shaped formation, the Old Man, the Apple, the Fairy, the Elephant, etc. – making our tour the most “informative” of them all!
5) Sleep on the boat! We had a small cabin aboard the ‘junk’ our first night and drove through a misty bay filled with thousands of small, steep, craggy islands that were beautiful and mysterious. At evening time the scene was straight out of Pirates of the Carribean -with a smattering of wooden junkers lit up in the mist and gliding around rocky tips, it was so cool!
6) KAYAK!!! Definately the coolest part of the tour – I popped into a boat at 7am and found myself going through tunnels and coming out into hidden bays in the center of rising cliff islands with only birds singing and tough green plants clinging for survival. It was a definite Laya meditation moment without the work of mentally chanting and sitting still for a half hour (Agama yoga knowledge -Chang Mai).
7) Hike in the REAL national park. After arriving on Cat Ba Island, we where ushered to our trekking location. This was not a standard trek through Cat Ba National Park but instead a walk up the steep hills along the coast on private? unclaimed? land. The views were great and the flora interesting, but our fake.. I mean ‘local’ guide incredibly enough pointed out a beehive (woot! woot!) which he then proceeded to throw rocks at…
8) Don’t stay in the Plaza hotel rooms if there are holes in the bathroom pipe area. The rats are NOT shy. (Preferably stay in a hotel that is actually IN TOWN, because the 2k walk at 3am is slighting scary due to barking dogs and lack of a map.)
9) Go to the disco on Cat Ba Island. We were greeted by 200 empty chairs, a colorfully lit and dead dance floor, and Christmas music to groove to. Sweet.
10) The floating village! Visit it! A fishing village among the islands which consists of entirely floating homes, boats (clearly floating), and a small floating school for the children!
In sum: Have a great time enjoying the sights of Halong Bay – but try to do it with out a tour group (if possible get rid of all other tourists during your visit…) because the natural beauty is incredible when you’re not looking over someone’s shoulder. Plus, I think I just don’t like tours as they are annoying, who wants to be herded, told when to eat, what to eat, and spend half their time waiting to be picked up, dropped off, or told they have ‘free time? Okay, not me!