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Sailing Halong Bay

Updated on March 27, 2011

We were loaded into a wooden boat with an outboard motor attached to the back, luggage and all. We left the shore and our guide stood up and asked us, “Which of these boats do you think we should take?” We were amongst about 100 junk boats, kitted out to take tourists on an overnight sail through Halong Bay, Vietnam. It’s wasn’t a surprise when we all pointed to the most luxurious looking boat in the harbour. What was a surprise was when she replied, ‘Ok’, turned the outboard motor and pointed our rickety vessel it its direction.

Our tour guide introduced herself as “Happy”. She must be used to the reactions that she gets from this because she politely smiles and repeats it again, ‘Yes, Happy’. Happy has a habit of slipping in references to Ho Chi Minh and every time she mentions his name she punctuates the sentence with ‘Our father, our uncle’ then nods her head at her audience as if we are all sharing a secret. Despite her over the top patriotism Happy lives up to her name and brings a great vibe to the trip. She particularly delights in describing Vietnamese delicacies which her audience do not find so appealing and nodding gleefully as we squirm.


We had booked our cruise on Halong Bay through the cousin of the concierge at our hotel in Hoi An.  In Vietnam everyone has a cousin, brother-in-law or sister who can do you a deal.  Booking the cruise from another town meant that we were taking a gamble on quality but in this case it was a gamble that paid off. Our rooms were as well appointed on the inside as the boat was on the outside, dark wood lined, each with a private bathroom and windows that could be opened for a spectacular view.


Sunset is the time that you begin to understand why this area has been granted world heritage listing. The mist that hangs over the limestone that juts up out of the sea picks up the colours of the setting sun and is constantly changing.  The area takes on a mythical hue and the other junks that are at anchor around you stand out against the amazing background.   It is impossible to take a bad picture in HalongBay at sunset.  This is also the time that I realised that being on the best boat in the bay, complete with red junk sails and a Vietnamese flag, means that I don’t get any pictures of it set against the blazing orange background. All I can do is watch as people on other junks snap away and curse my good luck.


The boats are clustered together in the evening and the crew tells us that this is because of pirates.  The picturesque setting is punctuated by the doff doff music of the boat pulled up near us.  It could be worse, we could be on that boat.  A few people take the chance to dive from the top deck of the boat into the water.  It looks like fun but only if you keep your eyes on the horizon. Looking down there is visible rubbish floating in the water and this makes me wonder about what I can’t see.

Plenty of people live on HalongBay. Their homes float on the bay, moored to the limestone cliffs. Women pull up along side the junk in wooden row boats giving what I recognise as the traditional Vietnamese greeting, ‘You buy, you buy’. We have been warned by the hosts on the boat not to buy their beer, which is considerably cheaper than what they sell it for on the boat, for a simple reason, it’s homemade. While a constitution made strong by a lifetime of drinking untreated water might handle beer made with untreated water it’s not something that foreigners should spend the evening telling tales while sipping.

And we do spend the evening on the top deck, chatting with other travellers from around the world. The staff of the boat are always ready to get us another drink and because we don’t hand over any money at the time it’s very easy to keep a full drink in your hand at all time. The hosts are there to facilitate the conversation, which in turn, facilitates the drinking which all adds to their profits. It’s a complaint that I’ve come across on a few travel forums, that guests have been overcharged in the morning for drinks they never ordered however in this case it was a great way to keep the momentum of the evening going. Even if it did mean a weary head in the morning.



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