Saturday, May 24, 2008

Halong Bay

My plan for Vietnam had initially been to spend a day in Hanoi, then head over to Halong Bay for a couple of days before moving up North into China. Unfortunately, the 'scarce' transportation options at the Laos border conspired to prevent me from spending any time at all in Hanoi, but I did arrive in Halong Bay Thursday night just as I had planned. Staying in the city on the bay didn't make a whole lot of sense (even though it is a much, much nicer place to be than the Lonely Planet gives it a credit for!), so I was off on an overnight cruise on the bay.

The ridiculous coincidence happened right as I was getting shepherded towards my boat at the dock where it turned out that out of the 100's of boats cruising the bay that day I was on the same one as Peter and Natalie - the two French travelers, with whom I'd shared a truck ride just a day earlier. They had apparently decided to cut their stay in Hanoi short as well and came down to Halong Bay. Along the way, they'd met a bunch of their friends from France, also by a completely accidental coincidence, so now we had a sizeable French delegation on our boat.
Am I looking French yet?

The first stop on our cruise was the Dong Thien Cung limstone cave, which was a prety amazing site... probably could've been even more amazing if the Vietnamese hadn't made quite so many artificial enhancements to it in the form of lights, walkways, ladders, fountain...

And just to reaffirm the impression that all French travelers are naturally drawn to France's former colony, Vietnam, I ran into another French guy I'd previously met on the trip (in Vang Vieng, Laos) while at the cave.

After spending a peaceful night on the bay, parked near Cat Ba island, I returned back to the mainland in the afternoon the next day and headed over to a local scuba diving shop. Now, the fact that a popular tourist (both local and foreign) destination like Halong Bay had exactly one dive shop only served to confirm my suspicions that the diving here might not be all that great, but I picked up an underwater camera in Bangkok, but may not have another chance to go diving until Mexico or Costa Rica in the winter, so I was determined to go while I had a chance, just to try out the underwater housing, if nothing else! The verdict? Well, the housing works just fine:

The diving? I'd recommend Halong Bay for a lot of things, but not for diving... The brochures claimed visibility of about 8-10m, which I thought was already pretty low. Instead, when we jumped in (and it was just me and the dive master), it was barely 1-2m. Which led to me losing site of him a couple of times during the <30 minute dive and having to surface to reconvene. Once you do get to the bottom, there's some mildly interesting things here, but nothing remotely comparable to places like Fiji, Borneo, or Thailand's Phi Phi. The dive outfit is also just a bit less than well organized as they'd forgotten to bring weight belts, so instead I was diving with a bnch of wrenches and assorted pieces of metal in the BCD, while the dive master with me was just carrying around a big rock! Of the two BCD's, one was leaking a little bit of air, and the other only had 150 Bar of air, instead of the customary 200... Considering that we were diving to all of 10m, I wasn't worried about any of it really, but all in all, I'm not inspired to have a whole lot of confidence in the successful and continued survival of scuba diving operations in Halong Bay, but, for now, I got to go an play with my underwater camera for 30 minutes, so I got what I wanted out of it! I also got $10 back at the end for the assorted problems we experienced...

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