#30 new country: vietnam | cruise day 03: halong bay

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Tasks #28-30 of 101.1001 is to visit 3 new countries. Did greece and israel on the cruise in 2014. Although strictly speaking, visiting Bethlehem meant I could add Palestine too, I wanted to add a new country during another trip. So, here is Vietnam.

Arrived at Halong Bay at 8am. Miserable, misty day that did very little to highlight the beauty of the UNESCO World Heritage site. We joined the ship’s excursion so duly showed up at the theatre at 9am. It was organised chaos with hundreds of people waiting for their tours. We got a small sticker and waited for our number to be called. The ship was moored in the bay itself, instead of getting a tender and boarding the tour boat, we went straight on our tour boat.

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Total 31 people on our tour, so not too bad. Everyone seemed fairly quiet and educated. The guide spoke mandarin, a feature on this cruise, so I didn’t listen and went outside to try to take pictures. The weather didn’t help. Most of these have been photoshopped. I can imagine how the rock formations will look like when there’s no fog and the sun is out. One of our tourmates described the scenery as like a watercolour painting. He was being generous.

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Still quite spectacular, especially the pillars that simply jut out of the water.

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Possibly the most iconic image of Halong Bay is the one of two chicken-shaped rocks, popularly called either the kissing rocks or the fighting rocks. Other tour boats were in the way, it’s useful to use them as a scale. These are two of the smaller rock formations in the bay.

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Stopped off at thien cung cave, a steep walk up into the 10,000 sq meter cave with several floors and high ceiling.

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Impressive limestone stalactites and stalagmites lit in several places by lights. Too dark to successfully take pictures, I’m glad I got a few that were in focus.

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At one point our guide pointed out an opening to the outside. Probably that was where the cave was first discovered. I dunno, I didn’t understand what he was saying.

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After the tour of the bay and cave, we returned to Halong town. The excursion became bizarre. We got off the boat into a coach, about 10mins drive to what looked to be a newly developed…street. We were escorted into a building, given badges and were shown around a department store. Salespeople flocked around us trying to hawk pillows, mattresses, towels, clothes and even toothbrushes. Everything looked cheap, outdated and tacky. Felt like we time travelled back to a 1970s communist store, any moment an official will demand our ID book and shopping permit.

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The street outside the store was empty and devoid of people, except tourists bundled off coaches. The street ended abruptly with tarmac one minute and muddy fields the next. There was a market one block down selling souvenirs. Most people opted to buy food–coffee (including civet cat coffee) and cashew nuts. The cashews were pretty good, so we bought a couple of packets too.

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By then everyone was hungry and looking for food. Not many options, the only one seemed to be a bar café whose enterprising staff set up a table outside cooking noodles. I guess this is our experience of pho in Vietnam. The noodles were okay, no different from what I’ve had all around the world. A sign of the times, they accepted CNY. But we only had large notes and didn’t want to accept change in local currency. Somehow we got the waitress to tell us the price in USD. We calculated the meal to be $7, she quoted $8. Was quite happy to give them the extra dollar.

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This whole last part of the excursion was weird and staged. Definitely were brought to an area dedicated solely for unsuspecting tourists. On the way back to the tender, we passed by real local streets and I wish we had the time to walk around there instead.

Impression of Vietnam: not enough to gauge really, a guided excursion where we were spoonfed stuff is not the best way to experience a new country. Halong Bay was beautiful, although I was a little underwhelmed. Too crowded and too little free time to truly take everything in. There was a part of the town I saw on the coach that had narrow, colourful colonial houses. There were small tiny local eateries too, as well as giant luxurious hotels. Felt like a developing SE Asian country, somewhere between mainland China and Thailand.

Full set: flickr

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Dinner was now a theme: barely edible overcooked food. Spicy chicken where the chicken was dry, watery salad, green minestrone (I’ve never come across green minestrone), spaghetti arrabiatta that was not spicy, green crème brûlée that had no custard or brûlée topping–it was yet another mousse-like concoction. Cheesecake was passable. Our routine after dinner: salad on 11/f then back to cabin.