Thursday, March 10, 2016

Cruising Asia - Halong Bay

February is always a good time of year to leave Korea in search of sunny skies.  With the Lunar New Year Holiday affording Bob several days off work, he and I decided to book a cruise from Hong Kong to Singapore.  (It was our Christmas gift to each other.)  We had been looking for a way to see some of Vietnam, and the cruise we found on Holland America stopped in four Vietnam ports along it's 14-day journey.  So, on Tuesday, February 2, 2016, Bob and I flew to Hong Kong and boarded the Volendam for two weeks of guilty pleasure!  (I'm speaking of the sunshine and food, you pervert!)

Hong Kong was cloudy and cold the day of our departure.  We were glad to have been there previously as we had no time for sight-seeing.  As we waited in line to check-in, we were quite shocked to see that we were the youngsters among the geriatric crowd with whom we would be cruising!  We had no idea that Holland America catered to a more "mature" clientele,  Perhaps the time of year and the itinerary also contributed to the make up of our cruising community.  I am not exaggerating when I say that most of the people on-board our ship spend at least half of their year cruising; and the majority were on this ship for 30-90 days!  I guess it is cheaper than living in many retirement homes. I couldn't do it - 14 days was twice as long as any previous cruise we had been on, and it was just about the right amount of time for me.  (I don't believe my hips could handle any more of those endless food options!)

The Volendam was similar to other cruise ships we had been on, although it was an older vessel and perhaps a less lively staff.  Here are just a couple of fun facts about the ship:  There were 1,399 guests aboard this cruise; the ship holds 860,000 gallons of fuel while consuming 85 gallons per mile; the vessels produces 370,000 gallons of water per day with a consumption of 174,000 per day; and the total milage covered on this cruise was 2766 nautical miles at an average speed of 13.6.  There were not a lot of activities on-board, and to my disappointment, the tennis court was mini-sized.  But our room was comfortable enough and our steward made sure we were greeted by the familiar towel animals every evening.


The harbor patrol guided the Volendam out of the bay and in the distance we could see a hillside completely covered with burial crypts.  We did the regulatory "muster" drill an then relaxed and enjoyed our first night and day at sea.

On Wednesday, February 4, our ship arrived at Halong Bay, Vietnam.  I had arranged for a tour with "My Way Travel" (highly recommended!) that would take us on a boat through the bay and northward into Bai Tu Long Bay.  We would stop at Vong Vieng fishing village and board a rustic row boat, passing through the floating village, fish and pearl farms.  Lunch would be provided back on the tour boat and then we would visit Paradise Cave, the biggest and most beautiful in Halong Bay.  We would also stop at a pearl factory before returning to port.  We had two couples from our ship join us on the tour:  Diane and Tom and Bev and Tom.  They became some of our good travel buddies for the remainder of the cruise. Although the weather was a little colder and less clear than desired, this proved to be my favorite port of call on the cruise.  The scenery was spectacular, the water amazingly clear turquoise, the food excellent, the company enjoyable and our tour guide(s) fantastic!

Here are a few photos of the port we tendered into.  Throughout Vietnam we were exposed to war propaganda such as was found on a nearby memorial.

As we arrived at our tour boat center, we were delighted to see many traditional Vietnamese musical instruments and hear the beautiful sounds they made.  Then we were escorted to our big tour boat, which just the six of us tourists and 3 staff climbed aboard for the day.

Here are some of the many spectacular karsts seen in the bay as well as some of the huge ships cruising along the busy shipping channel to Hanoi:

The fishing village is probably just designed for tourists, but it depicts a simple and quiet lifestyle that used to be common out in these bays.  I loved the beauty and serenity enjoyed on our rowboat ride around this village!  And could you have dreamed up that stunning water color?

Lunch was cooked aboard our tour boat and it was delicious!  They served an unusual sauteed green vegetable, chayote (Su Su), which I really enjoyed but had never tasted before.

We then sailed toward Paradise Cave (Dong Thien Cung), and joined the crowds as we meandered through the limestone cave.  I couldn't help but wonder how many of the karsts in the bay are actually hiding a similar hollow interior.  This cave encompassed several arches, and the colorful lighting was slightly toned down from those I've explored in China,


Here are a few videos of our experiences on Halong Bay.  Tai Chi is popular in Vietname, so our guide, Stephen, showed us some of his Tai Chi moves.  We laughed at the many small boat collisions and near-misses we experienced while pulling in and out of docks that day.  That would have created a million lawsuits in the U.S.!

It was interesting to stop at a Pearl Farm on our way back to port.  The pearl industry is quite prolific in Halong Bay.  Experts in the process of creating cultured pearls demonstrated how they perform surgery (grafting) on the oysters to implant a grain of sand (seeding) in the reproductive organ. Different kinds of oysters produce different sizes and colors of pearls.

And that brings a happy ending to our full day in Halong Bay.  We would relax for another day at sea before arriving at Da Nang, Vietnam on Saturday.

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