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Tuan Chau, a crowded ghost town

“Yes?” answered the monotonous voice, speaking in a heavy accented English.

“Hi, we have booked a bus from Ha Long bay to Hanoi for today at 12 and we were wondering when is the bus coming?” It was 12:10.

“Yes. Bus coming,” he answered, clearly not understanding my question.

I decided to change tack. “Ok. How would we recognise it? There are plenty of buses that stop here.”

“Yes. Somebody call you,” and he hung up. What was that? Who will call us and why?

I was determined not to make a complete fool out of myself so I decided to wait patiently for the phone to ring. I managed to do so for a solid five minutes.

When I couldn’t take it anymore, I decided to call back. Despite being annoyed by the previous broken conversation, deep inside I was grateful that someone would pick up the phone on a Sunday. After it rang a couple of times, the same dull man’s voice answered “Yes?”

“Hello again! So we are waiting for the bus from Ha Long to Hanoi.”

“Yes!” he seemed to animate a bit.

“Is the bus still coming? How do we recognize it?”

“Yes! You at drop point?”

“In front of the Toyota building, yes.”

“Ok, they pick you up.”  And just as first time, he hung up before I had the chance to ask any more questions. I was still clueless and even more frustrated. The bus was already 15 minute late.

At the vaguely designated pick up spot we were accosted by taxis, private cars, buses and mini-buses at a rate of one or two per minute. Obviously, all proposals were done in little to no English. Two white boys with backpacks waiting on the side-walk; we must’ve made for very attractive targets.

Which one of the miriad vehicles circling us like vultures were we supposed to pick? Quite a valid question since the return trip was already paid for in advance and we were woefully short on cash to pay for another.

To my relief, a couple of minutes later I received a text message from the travel agency asking for my email address. I was happy to provide it; it felt like some sort of progress.

Another five minutes passed while we paced impatiently. Another bus pulled next to us, the door magically opened with a soft hiss and a gentleman in a white shirt and black pants came out, brandishing a mobile phone.

“Two person for Hanoi?” I instantly knew he’s our man. He’s English was academic compared to the rest of the people who were stopping to pick us up.

“Yes!” we yelled. The white shirt shoved his phone under my nose and asked if the email address on the screen was mine.

“Yes! Yes, I am Eduard!” We hurried to the bus, as if we were affraid he’d change his mind and leave us stranded.

 

Two days earlier…

…we were unceremoniously disembarked in Ha Long Bay after a 4 hour bus ride. Before we had a chance to get our bearings, a taxi driver already appeared next to us. Determined not to give in to his advances — taxi drivers usually charge double rates than Grab — we ignored the cabbie and opened Google maps to see how far we were from the hotel.

Answer: quite farther than anticipated. I was expecting to be dropped across the road from our lodging on Tuần Châu Island, as per the bus booking. In reality we were dropped on the mainland, some 6 kilometers away from the hotel. Aparently I had grossly misread the map. Not for the first time.

At least five other drivers stopped next to us to give us a lift by the time we got in a Grab car.

Friendly vietnamese tour guide
What the bus guide lacked in English, he compensated through enthusiasm
Going about

At this point it’s probably worth mentioning that using Grab — the alternative for Uber in pretty much all of East Asia — is the way to go.

Why?

  • It’s roughly half of the price of a cab ride. Not to mention it has the advantage that you will know what you’ll have to pay before even ordering the ride, just like Uber.
  • You can link it to your credit card OR choose to pay cash at the end of the ride, offering you total control over how to pay for your ride.
  • Besides sometimes having difficulties communicating with the drivers, I never had any other problem in Asia using Grab. So far I’ve used it in: Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore.

Another local alternative to Grab is Gojek but I haven’t personally used it yet so I can’t vouch for it.

 

On the road to our hotel on Tuần Châu Island, we noticed the traffic seemed quite light. The highest concentration of cars was on the almost 2 kilometre long bridge that connects the mainland to the island. After that, it got progressively lighter. Which is kinda weird, considering the peak season is basically starting in less than one month.

It only got more uncanny after dropping the bags at the hotel and venturing out to explore. Given the world renown carstic formations of Ha Long bay are only a mere 5-6 kilometers away, it feelt eerie to walk deserted streets. The only other people we encountered were the staff of the few minimarkets, lounging outside on small plastic chairs and eying us with curiosity and hope. The hotels looked as empty as the streets: nobody was going in or out. Hardly any cars on the roads. The only real activity seemed to be happening on a construction site nearby.

Things seemed a bit more animated when we approached the Harbour building. As if on cue, we were surrounded by a gang of local women wearing the classic conical hats known in Vietnam as nón lá. Obviously they were trying to sell us overpriced boat tours.

If there is a moment when you’d like to blend in like a local in an Asian country, it’s one of these. With some effort, evasive actions were executed and we entered the relative quiet of the Harbour building.

Ha Long Bay Harbour
The Harbour in one of its less busy moments

If you find yourself in this location, be prepared to encounter a minimum of English signage. The few existing signs don’t reveal any useful information so some detectivistic work is required to make sense of what’s going on. Google Lens refused to work with the slow wi-fi available in the building so even wonky translations of the Vietnamese texts were unavailable.

After asking around, we were pointed to the only person in the whole building that spoke some English. Thus it was revealed that there were no more free slots for the day and we were encouraged to come back the next morning. At no point in the conversation was there any mention of the fact that we should do a reservation or if that’s even possible.

Feeling somewhat dejected we made our way outside, dodging the tourist harassing gang that was anxiously waiting our return. Crawling through the unforgiving sun, we set up to find a place to eat. It still seemed we were the only tourists on the whole island.

deserted beach in Ha Long bay
A walk on a quiet the beach can be quite therapeutic

After a lackluster lunch, I went alone for a walk along the palm-lined beach. Besides a half rotten dog carcass and some locals mending a couple of fishing boats, I was the only entity on the long stretch of sand. There were no waves to speak of; my feet sunk easily into the wet sand left by the retreating tide. Again that eerie feeling but also somewhat peaceful.

 

 

Ha Long Bay boat tour

I wish I could report that grabbing a boat for visiting the Bay is painless. Alas, it was not.

On the second day we woke up at quarter to seven, so we could be done with breakfast by half past, so we could be in the Harbour at quarter to eight. We succeeded admirably, only to find that all but one of the boats were now reserved. The available one was bookable for a three hour tour, instead of the full day we were hoping for.

Needless to say, this was quite frustrating given the hundreds of boats coming in or out of the harbour all day long. Were they ALL booked?

Ha Long Bay Harbour mouth
The harbour entrance – more busy than Oxford Street
Good to know!

If you do visit Ha Long, it’s worth making sure you have a proper  boat reservation before the day when you plan to go exploring. Otherwise you might end up on an overpriced boat offered by one of the afore mentioned locals. This website does seem to offer some good deals and I will probably use it for the next visit.

If boating is not your thing, a seaplane service functions every day for the whole year, weather allowing it. I hate flying but this one seems too interesting to miss, especially if money is not a problem. A 25 minute flight goes for around 95 pounds or 110 euro.

 

We decided to split our forces. My friend stayed at the Harbour, to look out for any last minute opening while I dashed to the hotel to try broker a deal with them. I proved to be the more successful one, and secured two places for the nice sum of 900.000 dong per person. Which is roughly £30 or 35 euros per person.

We only had to wait about two hours more before we finally went aboard a rickety wooden junk, alongside a bunch of tourists assembled from all over the island. Plenty of nationalities among them from Vietnamese and Chinese to Irish, Australian, British, Russian, Indian and Indonesian. That is to say, we were not the most cohesive group and everybody kept pretty much to themselves.

 

The junk was steering out of the busy harbour as seemingly chaotic as scooters weaving through the Hanoi traffic. The bustling harbour is in stark contrast to the deserted streets of the island. Where are all the people coming from? The only thing I can assume is they are brought in from the mainland. That would explain the tens of buses waiting in front of the Harbour building.

Full speed ahead towards the karstic islets of Ha Long bay! If you happen to find out that Ha Long means descending dragon, you will realise the name is quite suitable. The islets do look like the back of a dragon sleeping underwater.

Included in the ticket there were stops at a number of attractions like Sung Sot (Surprise) Cave, Ti Top Island and a kayak or boat ride in the Luon cave lagoon. Lunch was also included; alas, drinks or water were not.

Ha Long bay

Boat in Ha Long bay
A busy place, if I ever seen one

At first it’s exhilerating to see the giant rocks crawl closer as the boat picks up speed. This is attested by the groups of girls (and boys) invading the deck for trite selfie sessions. After about an hour or two, a sort of peace settles over the boat while the indulging photo sessions continue with less enthusiasm.

From time to time, the guide shows us various rock formations with the pride of a doting mother. When Two Chickens Kissing comes into view, everyone is encouraged to go out and admire this symbol of Ha Long. The rocks are indeed quite interesting but I think without the hype created by the guide, nobody would have payed them much attention. Nevertheless, Two Chickens Kissing (as seen at the top of this post) are deemed important enough to feature on the 200.000 dong banknote — the guide was excited to point this out by handing a note around to whomever was interested.

Bay seen from Sung Sot
View of the bay seen from the Surprise Cave entrance

The Surprise Cave was, well, quite surprising. I say that because it probably was the biggest and most impressive grotto I have ever seen, even with the lighting that makes it look like a Hollywood set. If you think of Indiana Jones or Lara Croft, this would be the kind of setting you’d find them in. Sadly taking in the impressive sights was impossible due to the loud groups of tourists. I understand they are going for volume rather than quality here: what else could you do in a location that is so popular?

After finishing with the cave and lunch, it was time for a boat or kayak ride in a nearby lagoon. From the pontoon where the junk stops, each tourist could choose to embark on a kayak or boat and head into the lagoon through the Luon Cave. Heading towards what seems just a hole in a wall can be a bit of a scary prospect, especially if you never been in a kayak before.

As it was, I was by myself, my friend having eschewed the kayak in favour of the boat. While I did manage to move around at a relatively brisk pace, I also succeeded in paddling a buket of water into the kayak and thus in my pants. Guess who had to go through the rest of the cruise clad in their swimming trunks afterwards?

Sung Sot Cave
The climb to the cave entrance is short but quite steep

Sung Sot cave

Sung Sot cave
Indiana Jones would feel right at home here

Junks in Ha Long bay
Junks patiently waiting the return of their passengers

Kayaking in Luon Lake
Kayaking on the calming waters of Luon Lake was one of the most memorable experiences of this day trip

The last stop was Ti Top island. As we found out from the very enthusiastic guide, Ti Top was named after Gherman Titov, the second man in space, who happened to visit the island in 1962. I am not sure how crowded the island was when Mr Titop and Mr Ho Chi Minh visited it back in the 60’s, but nowdays it’s more busy that a mall on Black Friday.

A constant stream of junks moves to and from the island. It’s small pier is so crowded that boats disembark their tourists then retreat out of the way for 40-50 minutes to leave enough space for new boats to unload before coming back again to pick their human cargo. For that reason, what would be a interesting stop — if there were less people — feels more like the main hall of a busy train station.

I was happy to spend my time on Mr Pitov’s island meditating, admiring the scenery and amusing myself by watcing a quirky chinese pensioner that stayed on his head, tried to do somrsaults,  was splashing in the water with another pensioner and generally acting like a kid. Turns out the best shows are the free ones.

Ti Top island

Ti Top island
Ti Top Island can get quite crowded

Ti Top island was the last stop; after it we headed back towards the Marina in Tuan Chan. The day has been somewhat tiring but overall entertaining. Ha Long is as wondorous as you might expect but it is marred, I’d say, by the number of tourists and boats everywhere. I realise I was just one more from that crowd but I could not stop wishing there were less of us.

 

Probably the best way to see the Bay is to book one of those private tours where you have a boat all for yourself; that way you’d be able to see the more remote areas if you so wished. The airplane tour is something else I’d try on a future visit. And if you want a similar experience but in a less crowded place, check out Guilin, in China. I’ve been there a bit over seven years ago and I found it to be much less packed that Ha Long, but no less wondorous. Also the fact that you could check it at your own pace, since it’s on land, made it much more exploration friendly.

View from hotel room Ha Long Bay
Rush Hour as seen from the hotel room

Mooring in Ha Long bay

returning boats in Ha Long bay
With the sunset, hundreds of boats speed back towards the harbour

Sunset Ha Long bay

Conclusion

Visiting Ha Long bay will be an adventure, no doubt about that. The sights are awesome and if you keep an open mind and a carefree attitude, no amount of tourists will bring you down. If you remember to bring your sunscreen and headphones to shield you from those noisy tourists, nothing will ruin your experience. And if you do end up on one of the cheaper tours like we did, bringing along a large water bottle can be a life saver.

Lastly but not least, make sure to book the cruise in advance so you don’t end up picking whatever ride is left. If you can find one that has the Luon and Sung Sot caves included, all the better.

Bottom line, I think Ha Long bay well deserves its name as one of the new wonders of the world and I will visit it again on my next visit to Vietnam, time permitting.

 

Until you manage to find your way to this amazing part of the world, keep an open mind about your travel experiences and don’t stop wandering!

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