We had been in Vietnam for close to 2 weeks now, and each day brought exhilaration and discovery beyond what we could visualize. As every trip has its high points, I had studied Ha Long Bay prior to arriving here, together with some of our other anticipated stops. If Vietnam were a woman, then Ha Long would be its little black dress. For all who are contemplating this magnificent country as your next destination, do not forego one of UNESCO’s most glorious World Heritage Sites.
However, covering the 180km from Hanoi to the bay is an adventure in itself. We had a driver from the Press Club come to pick us up at our hotel at around 8:30am. Since this cruise includes a night onboard, you should be prepared to have a change of clothing, toiletries, etc., whatever it is you need to carry you through till the next morning. If you arrange for the cruise through an agency prior to arriving here, which is recommended, they will similarly organize your transportation from Hanoi to Ha Long. As suggested earlier, do look up VietnamStay.Com , as they do promote the Emeraude Cruise and have a host of affiliations with various hotels and resorts throughout the country.
The van was fairly comfortable, though the best seats had been entirely appropriated by two women who were also going on the cruise. One of them was the creator of the Bonjour Paris! website, and the other was a photographer who was still using her trusted 35 mm camera. The day was London foggy, and it was difficult to see the famed limestone formations. Despite weather conditions, 18 people were expected to participate in the cruise. We had learned from Kurt Walter, general manager for Emeraude Cruises, that the ship has 39 cabins and can hold upward of 78 people, which is greater than any of the other vessels that ply the same waters and offer an overnighter.
We were getting away from Hanoi’s maddening traffic and onto a highway, but it is impossible to escape the kamikaze cyclo drivers and motorbikes. It’s a national hazard, this whole bike and traffic thing, as no one really obeys any law and rarely are there traffic lights. It is horrifying at first, but it does become routine after awhile, and you’ll start walking right into traffic like everyone else. That particular day, we witnessed two motorbike accidents; they occur daily.
I was riveted to the window, trying to capture with my mind’s eye the great dichotomy between brand-new, exquisitely colored, mahogany-door/window housing with dilapidated, haphazardly assembled shacks sharing the same sidewalk. This type of seesaw landscape is very common in both Hanoi and Saigon. It is also not unusual to see very elaborate gravesites, either in groups or stand alones, at very frequent intervals. Most families who live in rural areas are extended families and can span all of nine generations. The colorful tombstones they build for their deceased are an integral part of their life and tradition; since these are costly by relative standards, after a period of 3 years, the bodies are exhumed, the bones are washed, and they are re-interred into a smaller space so that the larger plot can be re-used and so on.
Ninety minutes had passed, and I suddenly noticed something different about our driver: he never honked his horn. For the last 2 weeks, every cab driver we have had seemed to be drawn to his horn beyond his own will; the constant honking can drive you mad at times, as it is totally unnecessary. Especially if you are occupying a lane that rightfully belongs to the other side of the road!!
We stopped at Dong Trieu Pottery Village to stretch our limbs, and I’d say you can look, but don’t purchase. The prices are determined in US dollars, the first indication of a tourist trap; the second is that you’ll find other tourist buses stopped here as well. At this point in our journey, I had seen too much pottery, lacquer ware, and embroidered art and knew my price ranges. Everything here was either triple or quadruple the prices we had seen in other places. If you are really set on pottery, the best place to go is the Bah Trang Village, which is about 25 minutes out of Hanoi and totally amazing.
We all took different directions, and I went to examine rows and rows of unfinished pottery; it was actually much more handsome than the finished pieces, as I could imagine how I would paint it or adhere papers to it and give it a personal touch. Most of the action was happening inside a huge showroom, and toward the rear section were young people, whom we were told were handicapped, working hard at the art of embroidery. This amazing art has been a Vietnamese specialty for ages, and I will tell you exactly where you need to go to get the most breathtaking pieces. We happened to stumble on the very center that produces it in Nah Trang. More on that later.
It is interesting to note that less haggling takes place in the north than in the south of Vietnam. It’s an interesting dynamic that has a lot to do with socio-economic conditions and cultural background.
We climb back into our van and pass through several villages before emerging into the city of Ha Long. I feel a chill inside as I peer at the limestone formations jutting out of the land; I had seen the photographs countless times, but was now driving on a road flanked by those incredible land formations, every one of which had a different shape and size. Some looked forbidding, while others gently sloped into the land and softened their appearance through rounded peaks. Banana trees shot out in clusters and would then disappear.
A phenomenal amount of construction is in progress around the bay; it is obvious that investors are banking on this area becoming a major draw for the tourists pouring into the country. Hotels and resorts are being built, and if I had to run a bed-and-breakfast, I’d love to do it here. Ha Long does boast a few four-star hotels, among them the Heritage Ha Long, the Bach Dang Hotel, the Plaza (no relation to the New York Hotel), and the Vuon Dao Hotel, which sits right on the shore. For alternative lodgings, please check this chart.
From the water, the coastline could easily be mistaken for the French Cote d’Azur, with pastel-colored buildings, a kind of cornice by the waterfront, and souvenir shops alternating with photo-developing services. Kodak makes its mark here in Vietnam. I was really astonished to spot what looked like a group of the "bateaux-mouches," which are so popular on the Seine in Paris, anchored at bay when we arrived. Have a look at the photo below and see what I mean.
Making it to the pier from the van has its trying moments; prepared to be assailed by street hawkers with a zillion postcards, necklaces, T-shirts, embroidered napkins, and whatnots. I must look like easy prey, as I am always the one in the group that is surrounded by them, and no matter how many times you say, "no thank you," it’s always, "Madame, postcards, really cheap, one dollar" and an "okay, how much you pay"-type deal. We are held all in a small area, where they take a head count for the cruise and match folks to their luggage and their cabin number. From there, there is a long pier to be negotiated, at which end is a launch that will transport us all to the Emeraude, which we can see from shore. The day is yet full of promise.