41 days away
155 km / 96 miles since last post
23,587 km / 14,656 miles total
We met everyone down in reception at 7:30am to check out of the hotel. We would be heading to Halong Bay for our overnight boat trip, but as we are only allowed to take a daypack we were leaving the rest of our luggage at the hotel in Hanoi, and returning to pick it up tomorrow.
A minibus came along to pick us all up, and the first stop we were making before leaving Hanoi was to the Blue Dragon drop-in centre. This is an Australian charity run centre which helps out street kids of Vietnam.
At the Blue Dragon we were met by James, a guy from England who works at the centre. He gave us a brief tour of the centre and then took us upstairs where a great breakfast of coffee, pastries and fruit was provided. He then explained a bit more about how the centre was set up and what work it does. It was a fascinating story and seems like a great cause. We couldn't help be very moved hearing some of the stories of kids who have found themselves at the centre. James explained that many kids come from poor backgrounds, single families who struggle to support their children, some are abused children, children who have run away from home, children who have been forced to quit school and move to the city where they are exploited, become addicted to drugs, susceptible to disease etc. There were certainly some sad stories to be heard, but it was also heart warming to hear about the success stories too.
James told us that they try to reunite children with their families if possible, and he also said that many of the children they have helped have gone on to win scholarships and be able to study at major universities across the world.
The Blue Dragon is a charity and therefore runs on donations. However they don't do major advertising campaigns as these cost money, and they ensure that as much money as possible is donated directly to helping and supporting the children. James told us that over 80% of every pound donated goes directly to the children - a far higher figure than most big charities with huge overheads.
Whilst we were enjoying breakfast with James, three of the children from the centre came to join us and helped us all learn a few Vietnamese phrases. Their English was very good and they seemed very happy here.
James explained that they do not normally have tour groups come to the centre to look around, but Intrepid (our tour company) are big supporters of the Blue Dragon, which is the reason why we were invited here. For any donations given by people on the tours, Intrepid match their donation.
It was easy to see what a fantastic job the charity was doing, and they obviously had some positive results, but it was also apparent that they need all the help they can get. We were happy to make a small donation, particularly as we knew it would be matched by Intrepid as well. There was no obligation to donate, it was all left very open for us, so we never felt pressured into donating or buying anything if we didn't want to. I am really glad we made the visit here to see what was being done to help the street kids of Vietnam.
After saying farewell to James and the kids from Blue Dragon, we got back into our minibus and began the four hour long journey to Halong Bay.
The journey was broken up slightly as we made a stop at a souvenir shop where they sold huge stone sculptures, as well as other bits and pieces. We all had a look around briefly, but I think most people just used this as a toilet break. Then it was back on the bus again.
We were happy to finally arrive at the port in Halong Bay, and even more happy to see that the sun had come out for our arrival, as it was looking a little cloudy when we left Hanoi earlier.
We got on a small speedboat to take us out a bit further to where our boat was anchored. After our experience of the dirty boat we had for our Three Gorges tour in China, I was hoping that out boat here would be of a better standard. It was reassuring seeing all the boats on the bay as they all looked really nice - from the outside, at least.
After a few minutes we came up to our boat - or sailing junk, as it has been referred to. I have to say that we were all really pleased. Firstly, the boat is just for our group and nobody else, so it is of modest size. When we arrived on the boat we came onto the second level which houses the restaurant and bar. There was a guy there to meet us and offer us a refreshing towel. The restaurant tables were set up very neatly and looking almost as if a wedding was taking place - yes, it looked that nice!
We took a wander through the restaurant and out onto the deck, where we saw that our boat had started to move and we were heading towards some of the huge limestone peaks that are scattered throughout the bay, and make it such a scenic place to be.
We were given the keys to our rooms, and headed below the restaurant deck to check out our cabins. I needn't have been at all apprehensive as the rooms were fantastic. They were small, as you would expect on a sailing boat, but they were perfectly clean and tidy. Our room had a double bed and en suite bathroom. The design of the bathroom was similar to that of our Three Gorges boat, in that the shower is not actually separated from the rest of the bathroom and is like a caravan bathroom. However, that was where the similarity with the Three Gorges boat ended! This bathroom was clean, dry and most importantly - the toilet didn't leak! It also had toilet roll supplied as well as a decent amount of shampoo and shower gel. It was perfect!
The other thing that struck us too was the peace and tranquility. There were no annoying Chinese tourists barging past us, and no annoying tour guide shouting (or singing) over the speaker system ruining the peace. Such a difference from our boat experience in China.
After a brief look around the boat - also checking out the upper deck which consists of some sun loungers to relax on later - we were invited into the restaurant for our lunch. The food on this trip is included in the tour package which makes things really simple. The only thing we have to pay for is any drinks. Lunch was great, there were a selection of different dishes to eat from. Isabel and Mia had to share a table as they are the vegetarians in the group, and Stu and I happened to sit with them also. Each table was made up of four people from the group (plus Thanh on one table). This worked out brilliantly for us as Isabel and Mia had separate vegetarian dishes, and Stu and I would get the meat dishes between the two of us (instead of having to share between four like the other tables). Result!
After lunch we had a free hour, so we all headed to the top deck and relaxed in the sun as we sailed through the bay - absolute bliss!
After an hour or so we moored up at the entrance to a cave. Here we got a smaller boat to take us to the shore, and we walked into the cave for a bit of a tour through. The cave was ok, it was very open. There was the obligatory shapes that were pointed out to us that were supposed to resemble various creature along the way - some more believable than others. It wasn't really anything special, other than the fact it was a very large open cave, so thankfully the tour through it wasn't too long.
After the cave, we returned to the speedboat to take us back to our sailing junk. We were told that we had the option to do some kayaking when we get to our boat, so a few of us opted for this. Andy and Louann shared one kayak, Francesca and Scott in another, and Michelle and I in another. I think the last time I got in a kayak was when I was about twelve years old, so I was happy when Michelle volunteered to steer and be at the back of the kayak.
I decided to take our small camera with us on the kayaking as Thanh had advised us that the little cave we could go through often has monkeys around it.
We paddled over to the cave and underneath the opening. Just past here we saw a tour boat had pulled over to the side and was pointing at something. We decided to paddle over and check it out, and sure enough the monkeys were there. We saw two adults and a baby - very sweet. Unfortunately the light was starting to fade by this time, and I only had our small camera with us and couldn't get close enough to the monkeys to take a good picture.
We headed back to the boat in the kayak. At first we couldn't remember the name of our boat, but luckily Michelle spotted Stu on board our boat and we headed over. We were both soaked through from the water coming off the paddle, but I'm glad I had brought some trousers to change into.
By the time we returned to the boat it was around sunset, and some of the group decided to have a brief swim. Stu even got in the water - he didn't have swimwear but went in the water in his pants!
Our boat was staying moored here for the night, and there were a few other boats around with the same idea. However there was no noise around us, and it looked really pretty as the sun went down and all the light of the other boats came on and were reflected in the water.
We had our evening meal in the restaurant which was very nice. We hadn't realised though that they had a karaoke machine in the bar. After we had finished our meal the staff turned on the karaoke, and our tour guide was trying to tempt people to sing. They had Vietnamese and English language songs. Thanh started things off by doing a few himself, but most of us seemed really reluctant to do it. Karaoke has never been my thing and it seemed very unappealing.
Mia and Monique were the first in our group to give it a try, which helped warm up some of the others to giving it a go. I was fairly convinced I wouldn't sing anything, but it is surprising what a few more cans of beer can do!
We were all doing mainly group numbers, but the choices of song were terrible - 'YMCA', Spice Girls, and other such trash. After a few beers I decided to inject a bit of quality and picked Babooshka by Kate Bush. As the song started I then remembered just how high her voice is! But, I think I did a pretty good job, even if I do say so myself. Not sure what the others thought about my song choice - Natalie commented "Is the machine just picking random old songs?", to which I had to reply "No, I actually chose that song!"
The karaoke finale was an awful group rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody, and then the karaoke machine was switched off. Probably for the best! It was a bit of fun though, once everyone had warmed up to it.
However, Stu, Michelle, Natalie and I weren't quite ready for bed like the rest of the group and took another round of drinks up to the top deck to enjoy. A very nice and relaxing way to end a great day.