My brother and I went on a “heritage appreciation tour” to celebrate his 21st birthday. This was a first time for us: to travel together. Normally, I would travel on my own or with my colleagues on official business or with the whole family on holiday tours. My sister informed me that my brother was very anxious for not having mommy around during the duration of the travel. Mom even called me to remind me to take care of my brother. I even quipped that they must stop treating him like a baby. But both of us were excited. Both of us were also anxious. Adding to this anxiety was us, almost not catching our flight to Hanoi on the first leg of our adventure.
It was a mishap on his part. It was a mishap on my part.
My brother was caught on a very, very heavey traffic on his way to pick me up in Diliman. He came from a chit-chat meeting somewhere in the Southern part of Quezon City and forgot about the time. He was supposed to come to my place by 6 pm and not to start his journey from Mayon to Diliman at 6 pm, which as we both know a busy hour in the metro. It was already 8 in the evening when he finally arrived to pick me up. It was a Friday: we were anticipating a very heavy traffic. Our flight was scheduled at 10:25 in the evening.
My mishap: I assumed that our flight would depart at Terminal 2, considering the carrier is officially housed at the aforementioned terminal. Upon arrival at Terminal 2, the guard checked our tickets, then let us in but later the same guard rushed to us to inform that we were at the wrong terminal.
My brother and I were like Amazing Race contestants. But we panicked, honestly. We flagged a taxi, got in and informed the driver we would pay him thrice or even five times if he would take us to Terminal 1 in less than five minutes. He did! We just lost PhP 1,000.00 to a taxi-ride of not more than a minute. But at least, we were able to check-in just in the nick of time, so to speak.
We were so lucky to catch our flight. . . . and we were even luckier to be in a flight of only 30 passengers. Until the last minute, I was hoping for a cabin crew to fetch us from where we were seated and to bring us to the Business Class section as an upgrade. I am now convinced being lucky has a limit. Nonetheless, the entire row of our assigned seats including the row adjacent to ours are “empty.” My brother stayed on our row and I transferred and conquered the entire row adjacent to ours.
We arrived at Hanoi International Airport forty-five minutes past 12 midnight. There is a one-hour time difference between Hanoi and Manila, Hanoi being one-hour late. It was past my bedtime. For my brother, it was still early (ahhh, these younger generations!). But both of us were so tired from the travel. We were also very exhausted from the misadventures we had in Manila.
After transacting with the money changer at the airport (gosh, we were instant millionaires), we had to travel via our rented private charter car (thanks Klook for this convenient way of airport transfer) to our hotel for almost forty-five minutes.
We only had about three or four hours of rest that night. But as soon as the sun started to rise (I am a morning person, I usually wake up at 6 am), my exhaustion was transformed into excitement.
Day 1: Yehey to Ha Long Bay!
Our hotel (Hanoi Focus Hotel) was kind enough to book us this trip (98 USD per person). My friends thought it was too much but it was my brother’s birthday. He deserved something “luxurious” I thought. What was included in the package? A luxury coach on the way to Ha Long, a luxury junk boat, a smaller group (we were just 20 in the group, I believe), flowing food for lunch, eight long hours of cruise along the bay, a stop over to a fishing village, exploration of lagoons and limestones caves, traditional spring roll class, afternoon tea, a beautiful sunset view after a whole day cruise.
From our Hotel to Ha Long Bay, we had to travel to the Quang Ninh province for about three hours (or less I think – I was sleeping the whole time). I remember we were picked up by the very energetic tour guide at 7:45 AM and it was 9 AM when I woke up at a stop-over. We left continued our travel at 9:15 AM. We arrived at the pier at 10:00 AM.
After our guide made few arrangements, we were finally cruising the Ha Long Bay at exactly 10:30 AM.
My initial impression with the surroundings: it was not as magical as I expected. But do not get me wrong, it was not bad! It was, as a matter of fact, beautiful, no doubt. I guess my impression was based on two significant reasons.
First, I am not a nature-lover. I am an avid follower of world heritage sites but I am more interested on built-heritage – monuments, cultural landscapes, historic cities, among others.
Second, I am from the Philippines. Like Vietnam, it is home to seven thousand plus islands. Not to mention, my memory of Coron in the Palawan Archipelago was still very much vivid. To date, the Coron biosphere (listed in the UNESCO World Heritage Site Tenatative List of the Philippines) is the only natural heritage site I truly admire with certain fascination and amazement similar to my own amazement with cultural heritage sites.
Anyhow, we cruised the Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most popular natural travel destination in Vietnam if not the entire mainland Southeast Asia. According to our guide, Ha Long means “descending dragon.” Most of the islands along the bay are distinctly shaped like dragons descending from the waters. Our guide also told us that once upon a time, it was even reported in a French newspaper or magazine that during the colonial era in Vietnam, the colonizers (the French) mistook the islands made of limestone karsts as dancing dragons.
However, in the local lore of the Vietnamese people, particularly of the people from North Vietnam, it is believed that when the northern region was starting to be be united into a community, intruders were also threatening the unification of the North. The people prayed to their gods for protection. To assist them, the gods sent a family of dragons. According to this lore, the dragons began spitting out jewels and jade, which turned into the islands and islets dotting the bay. These islands created a huge wall against the invaders.
At the junk boat, my brother and I did some photoshoots ala the Next Top Model while we were waiting for lunch. After some time, our guide called everyone for lunch. We had cucumber salad, traditional spring rolls (fried), shrimps in white wine sauce, pork with sesame, squid, rice and a whole fish that the boat assistants deboned. There was enough food. We were only a small group but the food was enough to feed another group of the same number.
After almost two and a half hour of cruising, we arrived at our first stop: a small fishing village where a group of fisherfolks awaited our arrival. Their role was to tour us to and fro hidden lagoons via limestone entrances using traditional wooden boats. For me, it was the most exciting moment of the tour. My brother and I had a chance to also wear the traditional triangular Vietnamese hat.
After about an hour and a half, we returned to our junk boat – tired but very happy. Then after a little cruising, we had another stop. Our guide informed us that we could do some swimming. Did I swim? No! Did my brother swim? No, he did not either! As I mentioned earlier, I saw clearer waters in the Philippines. Honestly, the water was bit dirty – not really polluted but my brother and I knew it was dirty. The water was green and from a far, emerald looking – almost magical. Closer to it, I felt a sense of danger. Perhaps because I was too cautious that a lot of junk boats carrying thousands of tourists were cruising the area and I was too paranoid with regards to how these boats have been disposing human waste (if you know what I mean).
Nonetheless, Ha Long Bay is definitely worth visiting.
On our part, there are still other aspects of the bay that we were not able to visit: the famous cave grotto and the high-point where tourists do some amazing photographs of themselves with the bay as the background. Would I return? May be not anytime soon.
Definitely, the day trip was very worthwhile.
I would add that when we were on our way back to the pier, we were even taught how to prepare the Vietnamese fresh spring rolls. Then, we had a wonderful view of the sunset before finally getting off the junk boat.
Heading back to the hotel via the luxurious coach – I had another two and a half hours of good sleep and rest while dreaming of local cuisine for dinner.
The next day was our city tour and our flight to Yangoon in Myanmar!