Arrived: Fri 28th July 2017 [Day17]
Departed: Saturday 29th July 2017 [Day18] (my birthday!!)
When you think of Vietnam, you think of the stunning Halong Bay (or the war, but let’s try and keep things positive). There are literally hundreds of different ways you can see this natural beauty. The tours come in all different shapes, sizes, styles and packages… but all of them are expensive. We knew this when we were looking at our options, and as I mentioned in an earlier post, there were a few things we knew we wouldn’t be able to scrimp on, there were some things that there is no way around it, you just have to pay the money to get the experience. We’d both heard a lot about the Castaways tour. A friend of mine who gave us his itinerary for when he went in 2016 said this was one of the highlights of his whole South East Asia trip. But… we weren’t sure it was for us. It was super super expensive, 2 or 3 nights, and we just didn’t have the time. So, we with the tour that the hostel we’d stayed with in both Hanoi and CatBa offered called Halong Hideaway Tour. They offered a couple of different options, and we went with the 2 day, 1 night experience. We were pretty proud of ourselves that we’d managed to work the timing of it that we would wake up in the famously stunning Halong Bay on my birthday… I’ve had some pretty epic birthdays (that tends to happen when you’re born in the middle of the summer), but, honestly, this one was one to remember…
We were picked up from our hostel on CatBa Island at around 11:30am. Nathan (an English hostel worker) took us to the coach with all our bags. The bus was full, apart from the 2 seats spare (one at the front, one in the middle) for me and Alice. We made a right mess of the whole thing, trying to get on with both our giant bags and day bags while everyone was just sat there staring at us, waiting for us to sit down. It was not our smoothest moment of the trip… I was sat next to a Canadian girl called Erin, and when we arrived at the port, we had to sit and wait for ages for the boat to arrive. We got chatting to a few other people: Jean & Nicolet (both Canadian and friends with Erin), and Abby (a British girl who I couldn’t figure out if she was young or old…).
When the boat finally arrived everyone headed down into the boat, but me and Alice were the first ones upstairs to the top, open sun deck. People soon followed us, and then Dyl (no idea if that’s how you spell it) an Irish Rep for the hostel, gave us all the lowdown of what our day entailed. After he finished his little speech, the music was on and the beer was flowing! (They had a big cooler of beer and whenever you took one, you just put a tally next to your name to keep tack). We were all drinking, chatting and enjoying the sun and music when it was announced that food was ready downstairs. The 6 of us (me and Al and our new pals) grabbed a table and enjoyed a meal of veggies, sea food, and rice. It was all pretty good and we finished it quickly so we could get back out into the sun and incredible views.
We were floating past traditional fishing villages, amazing cliffs, picturesque beaches, and more islands than you could ever count. The islands were more like giant cliff faces, partially covered in greenery just there, sticking out the water… it was insane. After a while we stopped off and a guy took another cooler and speakers onto this teeny tiny sandy/rocky bank at the bottom of a cliff (a beach, but, not really). The boat backed off again and then put down the anchor, ready for us all to jump off… I will admit, I froze at the top there, stood on the top deck of the boat after I’d climbed over the railings, looking like a lemon. I waited an embarrassing amount of time before finally jumping into the stunning water. Alice jumped a couple of times and managed to get some footage on her GoPro (we think). The water was beaut and we just all swam around for a bit, more people jumping in, and others watching.
(The company were doing a new promo video so we had a photographer guy and a drone guy getting some shots and clips for the whole time! You can watch the clip here, I make an appearance, and unfortunately so does my chest (loose playsuit and bending over to blow out candles = not a good mix) around the 2.24 minute mark.)
We eventually all moved closer to the beach, in:to the shallows so we could relax in the water drinking a beer, in the sunshine, IN HALONG BAY. We made pals with a couple called Jess and Chris who were super chilled and really nice. After quite a while just floating, sitting, drinking and chatting we were back on the boat and were taken to the Hideaway base where there were a number of wooden huts (dorm rooms) on stilts against one of the cliffs on an island (there was evena shipwreck under the walkway!).
There was also a bar/food area, a volleyball pitch, and a little beachy area. It was pretty fucking sweet to say the least! After all of us throwing our passports into a big metal food tray (nice and safe), we got sorted into our rooms (supposedly at random) and funnily enough most of our little group (that had formed slowly throughout the day) were put in the same room!
Poor Abby was really the only one stuck with a bunch of people we didn’t really know.
After all of us marvelling at the amazing (compared to normal hostel’s) bathrooms, and all the free stuff (little packets of shower gel, shampoo, soap, toothbrushes and paste etc.) we decided to go for a swim. Unfortunately the water was really dirty. There was a lot of rubbish floating round and washing up on the little beach area. The place itself though really was stunning. It felt so surreal looking around.
We all had a quick shower, change and headed to the bar area for some drinks and the dinner buffet was served. It was also really good to be fair, and we all had a couple of platefuls! The beers and conversation continued to flow, the music was on, we played a few games and then Alice gave me my birthday badge to wear! (Only a few hours till my birthday hit.)
We played a few card games, including 21, which I’d not played before (no it’s not pontoon or blackjack), it’s a game where you have to count round the group from 1 to 21. But, number 7 and 14 are switched, and when you hit 21 we all cheers our drinks, have a swig, and whoever said 21 makes up a new rule for a number. If the counting goes wrong or someone doesn’t follow a rule, they drink, and we start from 1 again. It was a pretty good game actually and we ended up with almost every other number with a rule or action (clap, high-five, say your name, reverse the order etc.)… It’s safe to say we didn’t reach 21 that often after that! We then played Picalo which is an app on your phone that’s literally built to be a handy drinking game… it was fun.
I was then called up (with some other guy) by Nathan and Dyl, we were presented with a cake and stood there awkwardly while everyone sang happy birthday to us! We were given a free shot of something (no shot glasses, it was poured directly into our mouths – classy I know!), but Dyl just poured and poured, and it ended up going not only down my throat but also just down everywhere… I got a nice birthday compliment (“You’ve got gorgeous eyes, you know that?” – thanks Dyl ❤ ), and then we continued to drink some more!
The shots went around, everyone got some and we continued to chat and play games. Some people started to head to bed, there was no big party, no dancing, no craziness (which I was quite happy about), and soon the bar lights were turned off. Those of us who were left made our way onto the beach and marvelled at the bioluminescent algae around our feet as we paddled into the water! It was around 1am, so officially my 24th birthday, I was in Halong Bay, Vietnam, surrounded by bioluminescent algae, looking up at the clear sky, and, I kid you not, I even saw a shooting star. It was one of the most amazing and memorable moments of my life… Happy birthday to me!
The next morning we all woke up in various states in our dorm room and by someone banging on the door to tell us that breakfast was ready (it was around 8am). A couple of the girls said Happy Birthday to me and then Alice scrambled in her bag to find me a couple of (very dishevelled) cards from people back home! How sweet!
We got ourselves out of bed and headed for the breakfast buffet which was a bit weird, but good non-the less. Those of us who were only doing the 1 night 2 day package were given 2 person kayaks and were sent off to explore the area. The others who were on the 2 night 3 day tour were off doing something else (a hike I think, back on CatBa Island).
Me and Al went off on our own and explored to the right of our “camp”, so nice just paddling around looking up at the giant rock faces and such… we were a bit confused as to where everyone else was, then as we passed our beach again, and Dyl shouted to us to catch up with the rest of the group, who were way off over the other side! We were apparently supposed to be going about as a group with a tour guide giving us some facts along the way… Ooops
We eventually caught them up (it was a struggle, especially for a hungover Alice who was probably down to my level of abilities here), and the guy told us the legend of how Vietnam and Halong Bay were created. Supposedly from above, Halong Bay looks like a dragon, and that’s part of the legend. We paddled around for a bit longer, finding some small floating/fishing houses etc. and then we headed back to the shore for around 11am.
When we got back, another buffet style lunch was prepared for us, but there were much fewer people than before so it was put onto a long table which we all sat around. Again, the food was great and we devoured it all before heading back to the room to pack and get ready for the boat and journey back. The ride back to CatBa was much shorter than on the way out (we must have gone here there, around and about everywhere). We just chilled and dried off on the top-deck and we were soon, sadly, back on CatBa Island.
We had to wait in the same room as the day before (but with an ice-cream this time), I got asked if the tattoo on my foot was a homage to the cereal Lucky Charms (it is not), and then we were all packed onto a bus and sat for ONE MILLION HOURS (direct quote from my journal there) on the hottest boat on the planet. I cannot even begin to describe this experience to you. We were all sardined into this boat, filling every space possible (expect for one seat at the back), there were fans on either side, which the driver refused to turn on, and none of the windows opened. We were not allowed off, and the boar was not allowed to leave, until EVERY seat was filled… I’m talking about that one, half broken seat at the back. The driver would not leave until it was taken. The sweat was pouring off everyone. I passed around my little Miniso (the best shop in Asia) fan to our friends to try and given them a momentary break from the sweltering heat. Even the hostel guys (Nathan and Dyl) were getting pissy about it. I felt sorry for them, we were all looking to them to try and fix the problem, but they were struggling just as much as us, and they could do nothing about it. Alice kept apologising to me that we were in this situation on my birthday, but we agreed to pretend that my birthday was on the 28th this year, not the 29th.
We eventually got going and left Cat Ba Island and Halong Bay behind as we made our way into the centre of Hanoi.
Arrived: Saturday 29th July 2017 [Day18] (my birthday!!)
Departed: Sunday 30th July 2017 [Day19]
We were dropped off at the hostel we’d stayed at at the start of the week (the sister hostel of the one we stayed in on Cat Ba, and the same hostel who ran the Halong Bay tour), and we were welcomed like old friends! The same guy who had checked us in, out and chatted to us the first time was there again. It was a really nice greeting after the boat and buses of the day! After checking in and dumping our things in our room, we headed straight nextdoor to the amazing bakery again where we treated ourselves to some more gooness, it was my birhday after all!!
Back to the hostel to chill, sort our things and eventually shower and chang;, we went down to meet the Canadian girls from the Halong Bay tour. We’d looked up a top-notch Indian Restaurant in Hanoi for my birthday meal, Indian, of course (this would be our 2nd or 3rd of the trip so far…). The lovely guy at the hostel reception phoned and booked a table for us for 7pm. We walked through the busy streets of downtown Hanoi and eventually came to Namaste: Indian Restaurant. It was a pretty fancy joint so we all felt a little out of place, but the food was soooooo good, it was a little spicy, but damn, it was huge portions and amazing taste (the Garlic Nann was to die for.)
We sat, ate, and chatted for a couple of hours. It was really nice to spend the evening of my birthday with some girls who we’d become good friends with over the past couple of days. I really appreciate them coming for the meal with us as it was slightly over a normal backpacker’s budget! They had a night bus to catch though so they headed off to grab their bags and me and Alice had a super chilled early night, and that was the end of my 24th Birthday…