*Ridiculous amount of pictures. Dial up users should upgrade to broadband. Broadband subscribers should be patient. Patient readers will be rewarded*
Hanoi is not a huge city. Even on foot, and at a leisurely pace, around 2-3 days will be sufficient to cover all its attractions. So, we headed out to Halong Bay for a day cruise on Day 3.
For around USD 20, you can take a day tour from Hanoi to Halong Bay. We had a small group of around 12 people in our van departing from Hanoi, and in the boat, we had around 16 people only. It's very important to make sure your Halong Bay tour is (a) small - 16 people max (b) refundable (in part - since you still pay for the van journey) if you can't cruise because of inclement weather (c) air conditioned if you go in summer.
The day starts early, at around 7.30 am - Halong Bay is 180 kms and a rather comfortable and uneventful 3 - 3.5 hours away from Hanoi by car. The scenery is quite monotonous until around the halfway stop - lots of farm lands, and factories.
As you get closer to Halong Bay, you start to see the limestone mountains Halong Bay is famous for ...
Halong means "Descending Dragon", and is famous for the large numbers of limestone mountains (also called karst) that poke out from the sea. In fact, these are the same limestone mountains that extend from Guilin in China, into north Vietnam. It's featured in Tomorrow Never Dies - the Bond movie featuring Michelle Yeoh.
Once in Halong Bay, the boat cruise itself is around 4 hours. It'll cruise around the islands nearer to the shore, and stop to visit one cave (Thien Cung). I have mistakenly watermarked my pictures with the words Trien Tru Cave ... I lazy to correct. It's Thien Cung cave, ok ?
It also stops at some Floating Fishing Village, where you can pick some of the seafood to add to lunch. Lunch is included in the tour, but if you want additional seafood from fishing village, it's extra. At additional USD2, you can also tour 2 sea caves on a motorboat - it'll take you into caves in 2 islands, both leading into a sea lake - (imagine the island in The Beach).
Of course, there's a lot of things to see. The rock formations here are quite interesting ...
And there's the floating vendors as well. I'll just call them floating markets =).
There is an option to do a 2D/1N stay in a boat in Halong Bay, and we've been told it's more interesting because it'll take us to some very narrow channels that will give us very close look at the mountains, include a trekking option on Titov Island, and also feature a beach visit. (We hear there are some exquisite beaches). These overnight boats are air conditioned, and has full complements of facilities, we heard from other travellers.
This being winter, the whole area is enveloped in a slight mist, which makes the atmosphere quite mysterious. Looks a bit like chinese painting, really.
The boat cruises along very slowly, which is good - you can enjoy the scenery better.
Halong Bay is absolutely lovely. The misty weather meant we didn't get any of the sparkling water or crystal clear views, but it was very good nonetheless, and the mist created an atmosphere that was out of the world.