The few days we spent in Sapa were fantastic, and a real change from the hustle-and-bustle of Hanoi.  But the part of the trip I had been most looking forward to was the cruise we’d booked on Halong Bay.  In addition to having some fantastic scenery, we had heard great things about the food onboard the cruises and were generally looking forward to a few days relaxing on the water with no real fixed itinerary.

We just about survived the four-hour drive from Hanoi (driving headlong into opposing traffic while expecting them to veer onto the shoulder to let you pass takes some getting used to) and were subjected to the mandatory over-priced tourist rest stop at the halfway point.  We arrived in the harbour at Halong Bay around lunchtime.

We booked the Princess 2 Junk.  Our guide came to meet us at the port to take care of the luggage and any last minute arrangements.  He asked if we ate everything, and I said that we did.  Then he asked whether we ate dog, no doubt his Vietnamese attempt at a joke about what foreigners will and won’t eat.  He was a little surprised when I pointed to a puppy playing nearby and suggested that "one that size would be okay," as I really only wanted to try a small taste.

We headed onboard, met the crew, and finished the last minute tasks of taking onboard fuel and water for the next few days.  Thirty minutes later we were eating lunch on the deck of the boat as we pulled out of port.

Aude in the harbour at Halong Bay

In the port at Halong Bay, getting ready to set off on our cruise.

Junks waiting in port at Halong Bay

Junk cruises are big business here.  There were at least 30 other junks in the harbour when we were setting off, most doing overnight or two-day trips.  Luckily, Princess run their itineraries on the opposite side of the bay to most of the other tour boats, so aside from a few other Princess boats that we saw at the mooring point each evening, we were pretty much on our own.

Vase of roses onboard

The crew had a bunch of roses waiting for Aude as she came onboard, and they’d decorated the cabin with rose petals.

Matthew & Aude onboard the Princess 2 Junk

Settling in for our first lunch as we headed out to sea.

Junk boat in Halong Bay

Following one of the other Princess junks travelling in the same direction.

Aude relaxes with a cup of coffee

A good lunch and a strong cup of Vietnamese coffee — time to start relaxing.

Stone islands in Halong Bay, Vietnam

We were about 20 minutes out of port when we began to see some of the many islands for which Halong Bay is famous.  Everything seemed to be wrapped in mist, which I guess is common, but it gave it an ethereal beauty.

Stone islands in Halong Bay, Vietnam

More islands.  There are 1’969 islands in total, but for the sake of brevity (and the fact that most of them look the same), these are all the pictures I’ll include.

Aude onboard the Princess 2 Junk

Starting to look relaxed.

Aude onboard the Princess 2 Junk

Woke up to a sunny morning on the second day, which was a nice surprise and a great way to start the day.

Fishing boat in Halong Bay

Not much other traffic where we were.  Here, a fisherman passes by.

Lion Island in Halong Bay, Vietnam

Lion Island.  Most of the islands here have a name, and our guide loved to regale us with tales of the names of the islands.  Either that, or he learned his English from the "Big Book of Animals".  Because he told us about Turtle Island, Toad Island, Serpent Island, Monkey Island, Frog Island, Dolphin Island, and enough others to fill Noah’s Ark to capacity.  Like someone else’s identical twins, perhaps he can tell them all apart, but they all look the same to me.  Lion Island, at least, actually looked like a lion.

Floating village in Halong Bay

A floating village.  About 150 people live here full-time, spending their entire lives on the water.  Rather than trying to sell tourists unwanted trinkets, I was pleased that this village has made arrangements with our boating company — they welcome visitors, and rely on voluntary donations to help support their village.  The result is a much more authentic experience for the visitor, and no hassle from unwelcomed salesmen.  I wish they’d had the same system in some of the villages in Sapa, where we spent more time avoiding being sold something than actually enjoying what we were seeing.

Cove near the floating village in Halong Bay

An inlet near the floating village, where we were taken by rowboat.  One of the most tranquil, most beautiful spots I’ve visited.  Absolutely one of those places where the pictures don’t begin to do justice to the original.

Fishermen in Halong Bay

A husband-and-wife fishing team.

Men playing cards on a boat in Halong Bay

The men play cars while a dog keeps watch.  Or keeps a safe distance, hoping not to go into the pot.  I’m not sure which.

Floating house in Halong Bay

Brightly coloured houses in the floating village.  Donations mean that they’re able to replace the styrofoam blocks on which the houses float with plastic barrels.  The barrels don’t break apart in the same way as styrofoam and are much more environmentally-friendly.

Floating house in Halong Bay

I particularly liked this house – neat and tidy with great, bold colours.

Floating schoolhouse in Halong Bay

There’s a two-room schoolhouse in the village, built with tourist donations.  School teachers from the mainland volunteer their time.  Uncle Ho over the blackboard, of course.

Little girl in rowboat in Halong Bay

Living on the water, the locals adapt quickly.  This little girl was already pretty adept at getting about in a rowboat.  Like every place on earth, it’s the kids that really capture the imagination.

Little girl in Halong Bay

As soon as this tourist boat pulled into the village, this little girl jumped to the helm and pretended to drive.

Islands in Halong Bay at sunset

Sunset over Halong Bay, heading back into port.

Vietnamese boathand at mooring

Our deck hand prepares for us to moor in our overnight sleeping spot.

Princess 3 Junk boat in Halong Bay

The Princess 3, a twin boat to ours, that accompanied us for most of our trip.  Very friendly Australian couple onboard who we bumped into several times when our itineraries crossed.

Aude relaxing on board

Three days at sea did the trick.  Relaxed at last!

Bridge over Halong Bay harbour

Coming back into the harbour at Halong Bay.