Saturday, October 21, 2017

TRAVEL | Our Ha Long Bay cruise experience (Part 3 of 3)

Continued from:

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Thien Canh Son Cave all lit up.

Thien Canh Son Beach and Cave
We approached an island with a small patch of white sand, one of the very few throughout the bay. This was Thien Canh Son Beach and here we were treated to a barbecue lunch by the beach. It was another great multi-course meal with turnip salad, a host of different grilled stuff, some rice dish wrapped and cooked in tin foil, and fruit.

I don't eat okra (I guess it's the slimy texture that turns me off) but here--and oddly enough--I devoured them. The okra was grilled and coated in a mildly spicy sauce (sambal, I guess), which somehow eliminated all that unpleasant slime. So yes, I guess now I'll eat okra, but only as long as it's cooked this way.

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Thien Canh Son Beach. Too bad swimming is not allowed here.

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Our crew busy with the grills.

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What a lovely setting for lunch, don't you think?

However small, the beach was nice. The water was very inviting but unfortunately we were told that swimming is not allowed. Our guide said that while Indochina Junk has secured exclusive rights to the island and cave, they weren't granted a permit to allow guests to swim here. Such a shame, I know.

Shortly after lunch we started hiking up a flight of carved out stairs to check the cave. Our guide gave us a brief background on the cave, how this and many others were used by local fisherfolk as shelter from the elements and all that.

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Come in.

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All lit up so visitors can fully admire the formations.

The cave was all lit up by artificial lights. While I have mixed feelings about this practice just to please the tourists, what really appalled me was that they seemed to have leveled off parts of the cave--for what else but the convenience of tourists! I haven't confirmed it but a closer inspection of sections of the cave grounds suggest so. Some stalagmites and rocks even look like they were rearranged! Otherwise, how were they able to conceal all the electrical wirings? But then again that's just my suspicion.

For whatever it's worth Thien Canh Son Cave is still a fairly nice cave. Expect it to be really humid inside, though.

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Thien Canh Son's main chamber.

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What goes up must come down. And so down we went back to the beach and later, our boat.

We came back to the beach and the umbrellas and chairs were now all lined up in a single file facing the sea. Just for a few more moments of relaxation. But to me it was torture because we couldn't swim.

We again anchored somewhere in the Cong Do area for the night. At dinner our guide (I still can't remember his name) introduced the entire Dragon's Pearl crew. The chef also showcased his food-carving skills with a pair of doves, a dragon, and a replica of our boat.

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Sailing through views like this will forever be awesome.

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One-half of the pair of doves carved out of turnip and resting on a piece of chayote.

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Back view of the dragon carved out of squash.

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A replica of Dragon's Pearl made of watermelon and squash.

Vong Vien Fishing Village
The following morning we set sail for Vong Vien Fishing Village. From what I've deduced from one of the signs at the floating receiving area, the place is merely a conservation site of 24 floating houses for tourism. While some 260 people used to live in the area, in 2014 they have been relocated to the mainland to improve their living conditions.

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Our small boat approaching the docking area.

We boarded smaller boats in groups of four. The uniformed rowers were all women, who immediately handed us traditional conical hats called nón lá. We paddled through placid waters and yet more limestone formations, then through floating houses and even more limestone cliffs.

Our rower said absolutely nothing all throughout the "tour." I understand they may not speak good English but for how organized they all are here, I wished the rowers said something--even memorized spiels like the ones in the Underground River in Puerto Princesa, Philippines--so we could at least gain a few insights into what these fishing villages are. We just saw floating houses, some men wading in the water doing I don't know what, a pair of dogs barking at us, and a cat.

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An advantage of being on the last boat: we get to use the first two as photo subjects against the surrounding landscape.

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Selfie time with our nón lá.

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Will anyone ever get tired of these views? Approaching the floating houses now.

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Poor kitty.

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These dogs weren't very happy to see us.

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Local fisherfolk in action. But with nary a word from our rower, I had no idea what they were doing. Some aquaculture thing, perhaps?

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Another one in action. Still a clueless me here.

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Oh, hey, a small Chinese junk!

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Just admiring the view here.

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Stunning formation.

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No, we weren't going through that hole unfortunately.

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Some aquaculture thing, I suppose.

Our little boat tour ended at the "Pearl Farm," where they gave us a demonstration on pearl farming and harvesting. There's also a jewelry shop of course, though none of us cared to buy anything. I found them quite expensive actually.

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Giving us the lowdown on oysters and pearls.

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Force-opening an oyster to check for any pearl. Quite graphic when I think of it.

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They harvest the pearl while the meat goes into food and the shells, crafts and jewelry. So, no waste, the lady said.

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Freshly harvested pearl.

Lunch and goodbye
Back at the boat we were given until 10am to pack up and clear our rooms. From hereon we had to stay at any of the decks until lunch. I've read that this is a common complaint among those who've booked cruises--which I share, by the way, because you're denied 1 to 2 more hours of rest (or sleep) and air-conditioned comfort--but I think it's a standard practice among operators. This seems to be the crew's window to clean all the cabins in preparation for a new batch of guests right after we disembark.

Lunch was served in the air-conditioned dining room. We stayed here until docking. In between people settled their respective incidentals at the bar. I saw that it's best to pay in cash because one couple was having a problem with their card due to poor signal.

Shuttle bus ride from Ha Long to Hanoi
We soon found ourselves back at that same seaside waiting area until our rides came. It was a different van this time but the features were similar to the first one. We also stopped at one of those tourist traps selling food, souvenirs, and gigantic stone sculptures.

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Yes, these humongous items are for sale, which they'll ship to almost any country.

After some 3.5 hours, we were back at our hotel in Hanoi.

In hindsight
Some may be content with only an overnight cruise or even a day trip but for me the 3D/2N option is the best because it's more laid-back. It allows you to experience Ha Long Bay instead of just giving you a mere taste of it. However, with minimal activities and where most of the time is spent, well, cruising, this tour is not for everyone, let alone kids. In my opinion it's best suited to couples and solo travelers. It's a venue for relaxing and practicing the art of doing nothing.

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Mighty works of nature. Till next time.

As for our choice of operator, I say Dragon Pearl Junks was a good decision. Nice boat, great staff, good food, and I did appreciate the less-crowded route and the intimate vibe aboard. It wasn't perfect but overall it was a good experience, good enough that I want to do it all over again. But of course I also want to try the more luxurious boats just for the experience. Some other time.

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