Saturday, December 10, 2011

Day 56 - 58: Ha Long Bay

The Kangaroo Cafe has had a rough ride on Trip Advisor. Part of it is probably not helped by the Cafe itself. The owner, Max - an Australian - has a typically blunt approach to pretty much everything regarding the marketing of his place. All around the cafe you'll find signs lauding the trip, and explaining exactly what he thinks of the multiple copycat tour groups in Hanoi, along with his forthright views on the quality of other tours, the duplicity of Lonely Planet, the quality of his meals, the size of the boat and the luxuriousness of the rooms, and so on. All written in Comic Sans MS, and complete with underlining and italics. His website is similar, and some of the responses to the Trip Advisor reviews cross the line from blunt to plain unprofessional. Swearing abounds. It's certainly a unique way of doing business. We'd never seen this level of self-aggrandisement in a company before, and it almost put us off booking with them.

However - and this is a big "however" - his company delivers on almost every single aspect.

We were already sold on the food at the cafe after trying one of their magnificent burgers. The tour was a different matter. $129 per person for a 3 day, 2 night tour wasn't the cheapest we found, but it certainly wasn't the most expensive. Rebecca and Craig paid the best part of $240 each for a stay on what was sold to them as a 4-star trip through a company called A-Class Opera, and were left disappointed and had to fight to get money back. We had contemplated doing a trip ourselves but after a chance encounter in Hanoi Backpackers with a Danish girl who had come back from a Kangaroo Cafe trip to Ha Long Bay (complete with pictures), we decided we'd book it.

On the day of the trip a fully air-conditioned bus picked us up just after 8am. It had the most legroom we've experienced on a bus in SE Asia so far and was a very comfortable ride. Our guide was Quan, a genial gent who was more than happy for us to ask questions and actively sought our opinion of every aspect of the tour - more on that later.

So, the boat itself.

Getting onto the White Dolphin, we were greeted with a dining room laid out like an upmarket restaurant, all cloth napkins, crisp tablecloths, and wine glasses along with a well-stocked bar. We had a welcome drink of orange juice, and were handed our room key.

The room far, far exceeded our expectations. A lovely double bed with bedside tables on either side, one of which had an antique telephone for some reason. A balcony that opened out onto the water (not just a window). A separate sofa. A fridge. A bathroom containing toothpaste, toothbrush, shampoo, shower gel, combs, and - to Gilly's delight - a hairdryer. On top of this, a rain shower in a separate cubicle. It's as close to a 4-star experience as you're likely to get on a boat.

Back to the dining room then, for our first meal. This was the thing I was most wary about; most of the negative reviews on Trip Advisor complained that the food was greasy and bland. Our lunch that day consisted of a starter of pumpkin soup with a plate of salad, followed by freshly cooked cockles, then crab meat in the shell mixed with vegetables, accompanied by rice and cooked vegetables, then what I can only describe as a squid pakora, and ending with dragon fruit. The whole thing was outstanding, pretty healthy, and exceptionally tasty.

Like any tour you go on from Hanoi, you have to pay for drinks on board and will also pay if you bring drinks on yourself (water is excluded from this latter rule). The prices aren't too bad but we smuggled on a box of wine we got from the supermarket, with the intention of sharing on the down low with our fellow shipmates. This turned out to be an excellent plan.

After lunch we took a trip with one of the many guides on the boat to what he described as "The Surprising Cave" (Thien Cung). This was a bit of an understatement. The cave, a hollowed out limestone shell with masses of natural rock formations artfully uplit with neon coloured lights, was staggeringly beautiful. We saw a rock that had formed into the shape of a tortoise, stalactite and stalagmite formations, and individual grottoes and karsts which were incredible. Ha Long Bay is a World Heritage site, and is trying to become known as one of the 7 wonders of the modern world. Judging by the cave, it's a realistic prospect.

The weather on the trip was pretty grey - it drizzled for almost all of the first day, and Quan suggested postponing kayaking to the following day in the hopes of getting better weather. We had checked the forecasts beforehand, so this wasn't unexpected - Ha Long Bay was still beautiful in the mist, so I can only imagine it is spectacular on a clear, sunny day. We anchored at about 5pm and then had the chance to jump off the boat into the water from various heights, which was great fun. The water wasn't too cold once you were submerged. Gilly opted against it, but Tom, Holly and I braved the waters:

Dinner consisted of salad, french fries, fried chicken, a whole cooked fish, rice, spring rolls and cabbage. Dessert was watermelon, and chocolate marshmallow cakes. All good.

One negative - the boat's staff weren't the friendliest. The one young guy was fantastic, and couldn't do enough for us, but the rest of them sat in the dining/lounge area on the comfortable seats, smoking and playing chess, and were fairly surly when we wanted to do some swimming in the evening. After one of the passengers spoke to Quan about it, he immediately told them to stop smoking and they did so. However, they still spent the day lounging in the chairs; it was pretty cold outside and we'd have liked to sit and socialise, but in the end had to pile around the dining room table to do so. Quan was excellent - friendly, sociable and gave some very interesting information on the places we visited and also Vietnam. For example, Vietnamese people have to pay 100% tax on imported items - sometimes 150% (such as for cars). So a $20,000 Toyota will set them back an insane $50,000. Corruption on the part of the government, or a way of promoting local manufacturing? Quan believes it is almost certainly the former.

We were due to do some kayaking in the afternoon, but it was pouring with rain and Quan asked if we wanted to postpone it until tomorrow at Monkey Island. What I didn't realise was that the chance to kayak into caves was only something we could do on the first day. This wasn't explained to us, until the next day when the option to do this was no longer available. This was a little disappointing - I got the feeling the boat staff weren't keen on going out in the rain to sort the kayaks out, so we were encouraged to postpone it.

We had a very comfortable night's sleep but the showers in the morning started off freezing, and moved up to lukewarm. It was too late to tell the staff but they probably would have sorted it out if we'd asked. Breakfast was omelette, toast with jam and butter, baguette, tea and coffee. Quan said that we could have different types of egg if we wanted (fried, scrambled, etc). Omelette suited me fine and it all tasted good.

We took a bus ride and a short boat in the pouring rain across to Thien Long (dragon cave) which was less spectacular but more "natural", and still great to explore. Apparently only Kangaroo Cafe tours go to this cave out of all of the tour groups; we saw one other couple, but I think they chartered their own boat and guide. There was a rock that was allegedly in the shape of a Buddha but our guide told us, tongue firmly planted in cheek, that a level of imagination was necessary.

Afterwards, we took the boat to Cat Ba Island and had a fantastic lunch at Green Mango. The blurb in Kangaroo Cafe claims it is the best restaurant on the island. I can believe that, as the food was excellent (and looking at the price list, it's likely the most expensive on Cat Ba to boot). We had plates of food brought out consecutively to share: papaya salad; Tom Yum soup; fried calamari and prawns; sweet and sour fish; BBQ chicken wings with rice; toasted tuna sandwiches with fries; a plate of fruit to finish. Again, all of it was excellent and filling.

In the afternoon we took the boat to Monkey Island. Interesting place - the wild monkeys there are used to humans, but are actually vicious little animals. They are used to humans giving them food, and will actively try and get into any bags you've brought along, and will even attack you if you don't give them food. This happened to Hannah, an Australian girl in our group; a man further down the beach had been feeding them, and they came over to her - she had no food, and couldn't run away (you're advised not to as they see that as a threat), and one of the larger monkeys came up and bit her leg. She was taken by boat immediately to the pharmacy to get rabies shots and was fine, but I would advise not getting too close to the monkeys if you can help it. Still, here's some pictured of the little bastards looking fairly cute:

We did some kayaking for an hour from the island to one of the beaches nearby. Great fun, the water wasn't too cold, and it had stopped raining. To be honest, it was worth doing to ensure we didn't get attacked by our simian "friends".

We got to the hotel on Cat Ba island at about 5:30pm, and the evening was ours to do what we wanted with. The hotel - Ngoc Lan Anh - was described as one of the better hotels on the island by Kangaroo Cafe. It was excellent. We had a double room which was HUGE and incorporated all mod cons: two double beds, table and chairs, massive bathroom with all the extras, a TV, hairdryer, wi-fi, the works. It had a great concave window looking out onto one of the Cat Ba cliffs, and all in all we were very impressed. We had some wine with Tom and Holly, taught them how to play Uno, listened to some Christmas tunes, then went out for some food. We we wandered around and went to a restaurant next to Bamboo cafe. I had fried crab (still in the shell) and steamed rice. We went back to our hotel, which had a karaoke room(!) and after the manager - a crazy and hilarious man named Zum - literally poured some rice whisky down our throats from a pitcher, we were in the mood for some singing. I think we were the only people in the hotel, which may have been a blessing given our efforts. Retiring to bed at 12:30am, we felt a little guilty as one of the hotel girls had stayed up as well, to ensure we had drinks, etc.

She was there at breakfast at 8am the next day serving us with a cracking selection of food - there are 7 options to choose from, ranging from pancakes, to omelettes, to Vietnamese breakfast staples, with bananas and tea or coffee. After checking out, we took a bus and then a boat to Ha Long City for lunch. After the Green Mango, the hotel we stopped at for lunch was disappointing. It was another set menu consisting of salad, chicken and potato casserole, fried fish in spicy sauce, rice, freshly cooked prawns, and chips. Sounds great, and tasted great, but we had one plate of each of the above to share between six people. There was simply not enough food. The meal ended with 8 segments of orange and I don't think I'd be alone in saying that 1.33 segments of orange does not class as dessert. If they had cooked a plate of each dish for four people, it would have been much better. As it was, by the time we left the restaurant and got the bus back to Hanoi, I was still hungry.

Overall then, was it worth doing the tour? Absolutely yes.

It's not perfect, but after seeing some of the cattle class tours being offered by the other operators, it was luxury by comparison and very reasonably priced. The maximum number of people is 16 on a 3-day tour, 14 on a 2-day. Other boats have large groups of people, sometimes from 3 different companies, all crowded on. There were 12 in our group, and we formed a great bond and made some fantastic new friends, despite the awful weather for most of the trip. It's a sign of a good tour that even rain can't dampen spirits. Here's all of us enjoying the rain at the end of the trip:

I'd love to see more of Ha Long Bay in the dry season, I can imagine it would be exceptionally beautiful. However, even with the rain the cliffs had an ethereal quality about them as they appeared through the mist:

We'll be back again, one day.

1 comment:

Dave Braga said...

monkey island? excellent! "You fight like a dairy farmer..."