Day 11 in Vietnam
04.01.2015 - 04.01.2015 85 °F
Our alarm went off at 4:30am.
Where are we, exactly? Oh, yeah. On the train.
A few minutes later, the music started playing over the loudspeakers, which signified that the train was arriving at a stop. (What is it, their national anthem? I'm not sure...) Rubbing our eyes, we struggled to get up. Although well rested, it is just hard to wake up at 4:30am.
We arrived in Hanoi with the usual hustle and bustle of the train station. Cabbies were everywhere - you could barely exit the train before someone took your arm and started walking you to their cab. Being westerners, we stuck out like sore thumbs of course, and it didn't take long before we were picked out of the crowd. Sleepily, we were dragged off to a cab, too tired to protest. (Typically, we were very careful about which cab companies we would take, always looking for a Vinasun or Mai Linh taxi because we were burned with the scam in Nha Trang and these are "reputable" companies. But in this case, we just went with it.)
Luckily, we didn't have any problems.
As we entered the cab, I gave the address of our destination to the cab driver: the Happy Tears Restaurant in the Old Quarter.
I should take a moment to give some back story here. Our main goal for the day was to connect with the cruise I had pre-booked from home for Halong Bay. To make our travels a little easier, I had pre-paid for transportation through the cruise company from Hanoi to Halong Bay after reading horror stories on the internet about people who tried to get themselves to the cruise boat dock, only to realize that it is nearly impossible t know which docking "complex" your tour operator leaves from, not to mention there is no way you would EVER be able to pick out your boat amongst the zillions of others. So, when booking transportation, they had inquired about which hotel to pick us up from. I explained that we were arriving early on the train and would not be checking into a hotel prior, and asked that they suggest a pickup location. They said the Happy Tears Restaurant opened early, and that they would pick us up at 8:00am. Hence, the destination.
As we drove into Old Quarter, however, we realized this may have been a mistake. There was not a single soul on the streets. All shops were closed, with the big "garage doors" rolled shut over each business. It was still dark outside. The streets were too dirty to lie down, and we were desperately wanting coffee. At least we were at the right address!
So, we walked a bit, trying to ensure we didn't get lost. Didn't get us much. There wasn't a single cafe open. We returned to the Happy Tears Restaurant and sat down with our backs to the closed garage door face.
As is his nature, Cary soon felt more awake and therefore got rowdy. In his fighting and throwing his weight around, he banged against the garage door a few times. Not long thereafter, we heard someone on the other side, coming to roll it up. The kid's hair was all askew and he had obviously just woken up. He put out a little ramp, pushed all the motorbikes parked inside out onto the sidewalk, and opened up for business for us. (Oh, yeah. I forgot that everyone here lives inside their restaurants....)
We ordered some breakfast, juices, and coffee. Luckily the place had wifi and easily accessible plugs to charge our electronics, as we were to sit there for another 3 hours. We made the best of it. Nobody else came in, and the shop owner didn't mind that we stayed for so long.
As 8:00am approached, I started to feel nervous. After all, I had prepaid about $900 over a month ago to some random people in Vietnam, and they told me something to the tune of, "Thanks for enough money to feed my family for a month. In exchange for your money, I will pick you up on the other side of the earth at 8:00am at a random place. Be there or be square." It would be so easy for them to take my money and not show up. Heck, I almost wouldn't blame them! 8:00am came and went. I got more nervous, and shot off an email to the cruise company to remind them we were waiting to be picked up. I felt sick from nerves.
And then, around 8:10am, the guy from Glory Cruises arrived. No problem, man. What were you worried about?
I love Vietnam; this just "operating on faith" that it will all work out ok. My nervousness quickly turned to a feeling of freedom and elation - "how AWESOME is it that I can make a plan to meet a random person at X time/date on the other side of the planet, and it just works out?!?!"
Anyway, we boarded the bus for the bumpy 4-hour ride to Halong City. The bus ride was uneventful; they gave us water, and the guide made a few announcements about passing attractions as we drove. He answered the tourists' questions. There was a stop halfway through at a touristy pit stop place where you could buy anything from snacks/drinks to art to furniture. When we arrived at the dock, it was apparent why the advice to pre-book transportation was sound - it WOULD be very hard to figure all of this out on your own. The Glory Cruise Line also shares a waiting area with Pelican Cruise Lines, and you never would have known this had you just showed up. Plus, the cruise ship didn't actually DOCK, it was waiting out in the water, and you had to take a small tender ship to get to it. You'd never figure this out alone.
After a short wait, we boarded the tender to get out to our ship.
We were pleasantly surprised when our cruise ship came into view. I had booked a mid-price cruise line, mainly choosing this one because it was one of the few that offered a "family room" instead of booking two separate rooms (therefore saving us money). Our boat was a bit tired looking, but all of them were, really - even the ones with the more "luxury" companies. The crew was waiting for us on the boat, waiving on our approach.
Upon boarding the boat, everyone gathered in the restaurant for the obligatory safety instructions. They were much shorter than those we had experienced on previous Caribbean cruises. It was a small ship - with only 24 rooms or so - and therefore much more intimate. We were then released to our rooms as the boat started to cruise.
The room was actually great. It was actually two rooms, where a doorway had been added to join them - one with a queen bed for Rick and I, and the second room with two twins for the kids. It was nice to know we could sleep in two separate rooms for the next few nights, and without Cary in our bed.
Lunchtime came quickly. We went back up to the restaurant, where we were treated to a very nice lunch. From your table, you could watch the scenery go by. It was stunning.
After lunch, we went to the upper deck, where they had lounge chairs to lay out and a bar area with tables. We watched more of the scenery. I had seen pictures of Halong Bay before leaving on Google Images, but the actual sight was more breathtaking. It was hard to wrap your mind around the enormity of the limestone karsts sticking out of the water, and the thought that this phenomenon stretched for miles and miles in every direction, with over 2,000 of them total in the bay.
We arrived fairly quickly at our first stop: Luon Cave. The cave went though one karst into a small little cove. We were given two options: kayak through the cave, or ride on a bamboo boat paddled by a local. We were worried about Cary sitting still in the kayak, so Rick and Cary chose the boat and Maggie and I chose the kayak. Plus, this allowed Rick to take the camera, as we didn't want it to get wet.
Maggie had never kayaked, but picked it up pretty quickly.
The cove is home to wild monkeys - we had an opportunity to see them up close. Rick snagged this picture from fairly far away, but Maggie and I kayaked right up to them on the beach... so close, in fact, that Maggie was frightened that they would jump onto our kayak.
After kayaking, we boarded the ship again and cruised to Ti Top beach for some swimming time ("no more than 59 minutes", though, according to our guide). Not only was there a beach there, but also a trail (all stairs) to climb to the top of the karst for some panoramic photos. We worried if Cary would be able to get up there, but Rick said he would carry him if he got tired. I marveled at the idea that he could carry Cary up all those stairs, but we went anyway. No need to worry, really - Cary climbed most of the way himself.
The view from the top was staggering. I wish it hadn't been overcast so the pictures would have been better, but man. How gorgeous.
Afterward, we climbed back down for some beach time.
We then took the tender back to the boat. We had a beer or two at the bar upstairs while we cruised to our stop for the night.
The other evening activities were quite entertaining. There was a huge and absolutely delicious dinner - complete with a lights-off-and-fire presentation of the appetizers. Afterward, there was a demonstration on the top deck of how to make Vietnamese spring rolls - the guide was very funny, and everyone - even the kids - got involved in rolling them and then eating them when finished. (As is typical of the Vietnamese, the guide took a special liking to the kids on board and involved them in everything.) As night settled in, they had squid fishing off the side of the boat (an impossible activity, if you ask me!). There was a movie playing in the restaurant, but it was in Vietnamese with French subtitles, much to the dismay of a few English-speaking tourists who showed up to watch it. However, knowing that breakfast would come quickly at 7am, and being tired from the long day, we turned in fairly early.