I'd been dreaming of visiting Halong Bay for years before visiting Vietnam. It was high up on the must-do list for this trip, my first ever to South East Asia, but for some reason I hadn't really thought about the logistics. One of the things I've discovered about long term travel is that you kinda have to plan as you're going along which is a huge change from my usual super well researched three week sojourns to countries around the world. There really is only much planning you can get done in advance when the length of your trip is indefinite and this is especially true if you're also in the midst of packing up / selling everything you own and saying "See ya later" to most of the people you love. This meant that a few days before Nick and I were due to leave Hanoi I started frantically googling trips to Halong Bay and wowza, they're expensive! Not ridiculously so, on a short trip we coulda made it work, but the prices were way outa the ballpark for our new lives as a full time travellers. The majority of the trips were also overnight (I get SO sea sick) and included visiting pearl farms and fishing villages as well as providing all meals. I really wanted to find a way for us to do this without compromising our ethics or paying for a trip that included meals and ending up hiding our cabin scarfing Clif bars after another unsatisfying meal of plain steamed rice. I found one company, Indochina Junk, who said they could cater to vegans and who we would definitely have taken the trip with if we were working with a more generous budget; even with their 20% media promotions package discount it was still well out of our price bracket so we moved onto the next idea. We eventually settled on basing ourselves on Cat Ba island (there's even a veg spot listed there on Happy Cow) and taking a day tour with Cat Ba Ventures, one of the companies recommended in Lonely Planet, to both Lan Ha Bay and Halong Bay.
The day began at Cat Ba Ventures centrally located office at 8:30am sharp where everyone from our small tour group collected their complimentary 1.5L bottles of water before hopping into a mini van for the short journey to the pier. We were almost the only people who hadn't also brought along copious amounts of whisky and wine which I honestly found a bit baffling. Yet again I found myself asking the question "Why does everything have to revolve around booze?!". I do drink alcohol but I can't comprehend why everything has to be all about it all the damn time. Ugh. There was also free coffee but soya lattes aside I'm still not sold on the whole caffeine buzz thing.
We were soon sailing away from Cat Ba and out into the dramatic limestone karst filled seascape.
First we first passed through a floating fishing village located just off the island. It seems that every single tour in the area goes through a floating fishing village but we were assured that we wouldn't have to deal with any awkward "having to turn down seafood in someone's home" moments and this turned out to be true. I also chose this tour because it didn't stop at a pearl farm something that it's even harder to explain your objections to than the meat industry! The boat did stop at one floating house / fishery to pick up our kayaks and people were able to get off of the boat and look around the guy's small fish farm if they wanted to.
Nick and I did hop off of the boat because there was a cute dog and I just had to pet him! We learnt that the dogs that live in the floating fishing villages are treated better than a lot of dogs in Vietnam because the people there have no need to use them for food, enjoy having them around for protection and see them as part of the family, There was a great moment when we were sailing by and I saw some pups jumping from house to house to play with each other.
Once we'd collected our kayaks the boat continued through the stunning seascape and I soon realised that we'd totally lucked out with our tour guide because he used to be a teacher. That meant that he knew a whole lot about rocks which may not sound that great but I loved geeking out and learning how the karsts were formed and the differences between a grotto and a cave. Yeah, I know that that's kinda basic shit but I didn't pay much attention during geography at school because my teacher was a total arsehole.
The karsts were beautiful and I loved gazing out at them from the top deck of the boat. The morning mist made me feel a little like I was in some kinda old world pirate adventure which was pretty cool.
Once we were far enough out in the bay we hopped off of the boat to do a spot of kayaking through some grottos. Our guide prided himself on being a bit of a renegade but also having a lot of local knowledge and understanding of the tides which meant that we went through grottos with signs saying stuff like "DANGER DO NOT ENTER"! I was a little unsure about this at first but his explanations made total sense so I went with it and it was super cool. We ended up exploring some secluded lagoons that were super peaceful and free from boats and other tour groups.
The person in the back of the kayak had to be the torch wearer and I think Nick looks rather fetching in a massive head torch!
This was the first time I'd ever been in a sit in kayak, it was a lot easier to hop into from the ladder of a boat than a sit on kayak but I think they're harder to deal with if you end up capsizing. Luckily we avoided that disaster but we did manage to get stuck on a huge rock at one point which was pretty silly, we were bringing up the rear of a small group (our kayaking group halved after about an hour because the whisky was calling) and nobody noticed that we were stuck! Thankfully Nick's great at staying calm in a crisis and managed to get us off of the rock and back to the boat in time for lunch, what a legend!
Lunch itself was a tad uninspiring but with about 12 hours notice I wasn't expecting a whole lot. We were sat at a table with some meat eaters and I couldn't get any non-meaty pic's but we ate deep fried tofu, steamed white rice, sautéed potatoes, mushrooms with sesame seeds and some of the worst spring rolls I've ever eaten. Seriously, I didn't know it was possible to screw up a spring roll that much! Oh and there were bananas. It was fine though and I didn't need to dig into my emergency snacks so I'm calling it a vegan win.
Towards the end of the day we had time to do a spot of swimming and some lounging on this secluded patch of sand, the water was a little cool and choppy due both to the time of year and global warming so I didn't spend a tonne of time in the water but it was nice to ease my diminishing but nevertheless always present sea sickness by hopping off of the boat again!
The only small issue I had with this trip was that because of the lower than average price and the fact that the tour group are mentioned in the Lonely Planet South East Asia on a Shoestring guide book a lot of the other people taking the tour were booze focussed 20-something year old Western backpackers. There's definitely enough space on the boat to get a little distance from this malarky but it's a downside I feel is worth mentioning. Overall though I definitely rate the experience I had on the trip and I'd recommend the one day Lan Ha to Halong Bay sailing and kayaking expedition as a good budget friendly (632,826 VND / $29 / £20) way to check out the area.