Halong Bay & a 27 hour bus ride from Hanoi to Luang Prabang
03.24.2012 - 03.28.2012 67 °F
Halong Bay is about a four hour bus ride from Hanoi's city center but in terms of scenery and atmosphere, there could not be two more polar opposites. Halong Bay's dramatic and beautiful landscape is indescribable with words and impossible to capture in pictures. The bay, known as Descending Dragon Bay, is home to 1,969 limestone islands that rise out of the tranquil sea, each with a unique shape, height, and characteristics. According to local myth, this is how Halong Bay was created:
"Long ago when their forefathers were fighting foreign invaders from the north, the gods from heaven sent a family of dragons to help defend their land. This family of dragons descended upon what is now Ha Long Bay and began spitting out jewels and jade. Upon hitting the sea, these jewels turned into the various islands and islets dotting the seascape and formed a formidable fortress against the invaders. The locals were able to keep their land safe and formed what is now the country of Vietnam. The Dragon family fell so much in love with this area for its calm water and for the reverence of the people of Vietnam that they decided to remain on earth. Mother dragon lies on what is now Ha Long and where her children lie is Bai Tu Long. The dragon tails formed the area of Bach Long Vi known for the miles of white sandy beaches of Tra Co peninsula."
Regardless of how they were made, Halong Bay is, by far, one of the most breathtakingly beautiful sights we've ever been blessed to see, let alone sleep among. Everyday hundreds of cruise companies bring hundreds of tourists to hundreds of cruise ships, or as they are locally call 'junks', to tour around the thousands of islands. We spent hours upon hours researching junks to ensure that we did not end up on one of the 'horror junks' we had read about, full of rats, bad food, and a horrible itinerary. Late one night, unable to listen to one more sales pitch, we ended up choosing an 8 month old boat called the Alova Gold thinking it couldn't be too much of a disaster since it was so new. We were right. We spent two nights and three days touring around the islands, kayaking among them, and relaxing as our boat floated among them. Unfortunately it was too cold to really enjoy the water and the sun was not out much, but regardless, we had a wonderful time exploring the "Descending Dragon".
Even though we've said pictures don't do it justice, we tried our best so we could share the experience with you!
The locals have named 989 of the islands, mostly after animals and birds. Just as we can spend our time looking at the clouds, imagining what they look like, they do the same with the cliffs. This one was named "Kissing Cock Island" because it looks like a hen and a chicken kissing. I don't see it, but I'll let you be the judge!
In the last blog, I told you about an entire village that went underground during the Vietnam War. In Halong Bay about 1,600 people actually live on Halong Bay in four different floating villages. They live on floating houses, study in floating schools, pray at a floating temple, and make a living through fishing, selling goods to tourists on their junks, and marine aquaculture such as cultivating pearls in pearl farms. Most people living in these villages will never spend a night sleeping on land, unless they become extremely ill. For the most part, only men will visit land for supplies and come back the same day.
Selling Snacks and Drinks to Tourists on their Junks
27 Hour Bus Ride: Hanoi to Luang Prabang
All travelers experience their ups and downs. We had just experienced a magical up and now it was our turn to board what is commonly referred to as the "Hell Bus" on travel forums for our almighty down, hahaha. I'll give you a brief timeline of our trip from Hanoi to Luang Prabang and provide you with a comical documentary Joe made of our experience. We're becoming stronger people everyday!
3:30 PM: Eat our "last supper".
5:00 PM: We're supposed to be picked up by our bus but there is no one in sight. We sit, anxiously.
5:30 PM: Man arrives on a motor scooter and tells us to follow him. We run, with all of our earthly belongings, behind his scooter, dodging deadly Hanoi traffic until arriving at another travel agency.
6:00 PM: Pack 30+ smelly, gross, sweaty, unbathed travelers onto this minibus.
7:00 PM: Arrive at bus station, entrust our passports into the hands of a stranger to buy our bus ticket and stand alert and ready to rush and get seats together on the bus.
7:30 PM Board our home for the next 27 hours. We got seats together... SUCCESS! No toilet... FAILURE!
7:45 PM: Minutes after getting on the road, we pick up 3 people from the side of the highway and start blaring techno with a side of exotic dancing. Wow, we're already getting more than our money's worth!
8:00 PM: We make our first stop. This restaurant not only came with delicious maggots, it also included top-of-the-line overflowing squatter toilets, 15 fighting pigs, the delicious scent of diarrhea, and food hand washed on the ground! Lucky us!
9:00 PM - 6:00 AM: Occasional flirtation with sleep, awoken by honking, screaming, and near head-on collisions. Several prayers and swears later we arrive at the Vietnam/Laos border.
7:00 AM: We are screamed at to get the f* off the bus?!?!
7:00 AM - 8:00 AM: Stand outside in the freezing cold, brush our teeth behind the customs building, and wait for the border to open.
8:00 AM: Once again, hand our passports over with no explanation of what we should expect then sit and wait.
8:30 AM: Vietnamese Customs Agent begins to return passports to foreigners. He calls my name, I walk up to the window, and he screams "NO!" and points at another girl. He won't believe that my passport is mine and refuses to give it to me. He closes my passport, pushes it to the side of his desk, and begins to call other people up. I now scream at him "NO! It's me!" I reach my hand through his plastic partition and point to the date of issue, then point to my face and say "Same-Same but Different". I rattle off my passport number, birthday, passport issue and expiration date and he finally concedes. Phew!!
We then walk up a dirt hill into Laos.
9:00 AM: Have Laos visas hand-written for us.
9:30 AM: On the road again. This time, we are not allowed to use more than one blanket for every two people, even though there are about 40 extra blankets sitting on the bus and all Vietnamese passengers are allowed 2-3 blankets each. We are pushed and screamed at by the bus drivers and blankets are ripped off of us.
9:30 AM - 9:00 PM: Twelve wonderful hours of being yelled at for not following an unknown and constantly stricter code of conduct. Breaking this code resulted in one girl being threatened with a metal pipe, another with a knife, I was pushed and got screamed at inches from my face. Things got real dangerous, ridiculous, and unbelievable real fast! All of this happened while we continued evasive driving maneuvers on roads not much bigger than the width of our bus with nothing between us and a slip off the side of ridiculous mountains. Oh, and every hour or so we would stop, pick up weary travelers from the side of the road and watch our drivers blackmail and rob them.
9:00 PM: Arrive at the Luang Prabang Bus Station. The craziest of bus drivers pushes me one more time, screaming at me for the blanket under my butt. He proceeds to try to rip the blanket out from under me as I'm trying my best to move. He pushes me too far. I scream at him, take the blanket, and throw it in his face. He gets off the bus and I proceed to unfold every blanket on the bus in a liberating attempt at redemption! I know, it wasn't right but it felt good!
Once we arrived in Luang Prabang everything changed. We're back in an up, probably the highest up we've had since we've started traveling. People are incredible nice, the city is remarkably clean, and every corner is utterly picturesque but more about Luang Prabang next time.... for now, spend the next 7 minutes in the best way you can... watching Joe's video!