Tourists don't know where they've been, travellers don't know where they're going.

Paul Theroux

The Karsts of Northern Vietnam 🇻🇳

Bai tu Long

We decided to visit Bai Tu Long rather than its more famous neighbour, Halong Bay, primarily because it has relatively fewer tourist boats. Plus it’s less developed and thus quieter (and also less polluted,) although I suspect this won’t last long as the area is simply stunning!

The helpful staff at our hotel in Hanoi helped us chose a tour that was right for us. We decided to splurge out on a 2 night stay on board a good quality boat so that we could enjoy a full day and a half rather than simply staying overnight and returning to Hanoi the following morning.

Bai Tu Long lies to the north east of Halong Bay but is still accessed from Halong City. According to legend, millions of years ago a massive dragon descended into Ha Long Bay (which means “Descending Dragon”) and dropped numerous eggs. These eggs hatched forming many rocks and islands. As she returned to heaven the dragon said goodbye to her offspring at Bai Tu Long Bay, which means “the dragon parts the offspring.”

After an early morning pick up at our Hanoi hotel we had a 4 hour bus trip with a cheerful and informative guide. En route we stopped off at a large, commercial rest stop selling art, statues and lacquer ware produced by disabled people who were working on the premises and happy to chat and answer questions. Clothing and food, all of which were completely over priced, were aimed solely at the tourists making their way to Ha Long bay.

On arrival at Ha Long city we hopped onto a small boat to transfer us to our boat, The Viola. Our cabin was small but smart and well appointed. It also had its own balcony complete with seats and stunning views!

We were lucky in that there were 12 of us in total for our first night and 11 on the second. The Viola has a capacity of about 25 so there was plenty of space for us all. The friendly and attentive staff, plus a high crew to passenger ratio meant that all our needs were catered. The food was plentiful and delicious. A banquet was served on our first night: starring roles going to the huge king prawns and an intricate carrot-lattice which dressed a whole fish. A swan made of pineapple and carrot was used to house spring rolls…and the dishes just seemed to keep on flowing! I think we rolled away from the table groaning!

The company’s itinerary was slick, efficient and obviously well practised. Following our lunch we had the choice of kayaking or being rowed on a small boat to a floating pearl harvesting ‘factory’. I was a little tentative given my spinal injury so unusually for us we opted for the easy option. We donned life vests and were given a traditional Vietnamese bamboo hat to wear. Our relaxing boat trip took us past the floating fishing village where every deck seemed to have a barking dog!

The floating pearl ‘factory’ had cages of oysters tethered up and submerged in the sea where the pearls were being cultivated.

A demonstration followed of how the pearls of various types and sizes are grown and harvested. Grains of sand are implanted into the oyster in order to propagate the pearl. We were told of the various types: akoya, black tahiti and south sea pearls, all of which are graded according to their size and quality. What neither of us realised is that when every pearl is successfully harvested from the oyster it meets an untimely demise as it’s discarded! Jon says he’s going to start campaigning for oysters’ rights. I told him he can have a car sticker saying ” Oysters have feelings too!”.

No surprise to find a large pearl jewellers at the factory with a variety of pieces to suit everyone’s taste ranging from oversized, bling to simple, more tasteful items. Jon shot through like a greyhound chasing a hare while I lingered to admire some of the jewellery.

Back on board the Viola there was free time to relax, sunbathe and marvel at the stunning karst limestone scenery. The sheer, almost vertical rocks emerge from the sea reaching ever skyward. Their immense size and number create an amazing yet serene setting. We both found the tranquility a soothing antidote to the frenetic pace of the cities of south east Asia.

Luckily the weather was pretty good so we took photos and chilled prior to the ‘mix and mingle’ with a couple of complimentary pre-dinner drinks on the deck with rest of the group. Fellow guests included a friendly, young loved-up American couple, a husband and wife from Melbourne and a couple from L.A. all of whom were good company. An American chap with his Philippine girlfriend and some of her family made up the group. We all sat around chatting after dinner for some considerable time, preventing the crew from setting up ready for the next day’s breakfast.

After dinner we tried our hand at squid fishing off the side of the boat. Nothing fancy just a bamboo pool and a bare hook. What about bait I asked. No need apparently. The Aussie guy caught two the previous night but we were not so lucky. Good job we weren’t fishing for our dinner!

We awoke early at 6am the next morning and opened wide the curtains so that we could lie in bed and feast our eyes on the serene and magnificent scenery. Imagine our surprise when a lady on board a small boat waved to us! We quickly shut the curtains and opened them a few minutes later thinking that she would have disappeared, but no, she was still there and this time proceeded to hold up and offer us necklaces! Is there no sanctuary from tourism?

As we were staying for another night we said goodbye to those guests who were returning to the mainland and we were taken from the Viola to another smaller, day trip boat where we joined two young couples and another friendly crew. We were going to a beach on one of the small islets and so we boarded a pontoon and then transferred into our double kayak. I got in first and when Jon got in we thought he was going to capsize us! For 30 minutes or so we kayaked in calm seas amongst amazing scenery to the beach.

We were the first people to arrive so for a while there were only 7 of us on the entire beach! The water was clear and warm and we spent just over an hour before kayaking back to the boat. We both wished that we could have stayed longer.

Back on the boat we had a delicious barbecue lunch with more food than we could possibly eat which promptly called for a lie down on the sun deck!

On the way back to the Viola our trip took us to the Master cave. Quite a small cave in comparison to others that we’ve seen but interesting nonetheless.

We returned to our boat and a while later the new overnighters had arrived to join the cruise. Later, following welcome drinks for the new guests we enjoyed another delicious meal and tons of it (although we didn’t partake in the banquet, that would have been really gluttonous as we’d had that the previous evening!) As you can tell, we definitely didn’t feel at all hungry during our trip as eating was one of the major activities on board!

When we awoke on our second day there was no local woman to greet us. After breakfast the boat headed back toward Halong City and en route we stopped off at some more impressive and much larger caves (along with all the other tourist boats!)

Back on board we were able to attend a cooking demonstration. A young sous chef showed off his skills carving flowers, animals and also a lattice from carrots and other vegetables.  One of the passengers tried his hand, rather successfully, at making the carrot lattice and, after watching the chef demonstrate how to make spring rolls we had a go! Yum yum!

Once back in Halong City we boarded the bus to return to Hanoi. We returned feeling thoroughly relaxed after our peaceful two night trip. We collected our bags from La Beauté hotel in Hanoi and headed out to an hotel near the airport.

Next stop Hong Kong!

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