Monday 28 December 2015

3D2N Halong Bay with Tonkin Cruises: Day Boat Tour and Royal Wings Cruise

Lunch was served when we pulled up near Vung Ha Beach (Oyster Beach), as promised. Nam, our terrific guide for the day, came up to where we were partying on the upper deck in order to herd us to the dining room. We hadn't smelled anything cooking at all. The breeze we had so enjoyed upstairs had also wicked away all evidence of the kitchen's activities, so it was to our great surprise that once we were all seated, the crew immediately brought out a veritable feast. 

If you're looking for a cruise that serves only traditional Vietnamese cuisine, this isn't it. Our lunch instead catered to a very wide variety of palates, including that of children: one of the dishes was a mound of thick-cut fries. Most of the meal quite fittingly consisted of seafood - squid stir fried with crisp bell peppers, deep fried chunks of fish (Our meagre catch of the day didn't affect the menu, thankfully), and juicy prawns. Our on-board chefs were superb, and we made quite a dent in the hearty spread. 

As the meal wound down and the plates were cleared to make way for a simple dessert of sliced oranges, there was a shift in the light that made me look up and out to the view outside. Somehow, the clouds had parted and the sun had come out in full force. The view had been moodily majestic before under the heavily filtered rays, but now it was downright spectacular. It was like a shroud had been lifted, and now we could see everything in its full glory. 

The appearance of the sun banished all traces of a post-lunch stupor before it even began. A scene of such breathtaking loveliness was set out before us, and that stirred us to action, Some of the group was so inspired, they began jumping straight into the water. I dipped my toes into the water a little more gingerly, and was pleasantly surprised to find it quite warm. 

The sea sparkled as I splashed my way around the boat, and all around us the islands seemed somehow more lush than they had been just ten minutes before. 

I'm not a very strong swimmer, so I eventually hauled myself back up on the boat while J and the rest swam to the narrow strip of beach on Oyster Island. I sunned myself while they all carved their names on the sand. 

All this while, the crew busied themselves with receiving the load of kayaks that had been hauled over for us by the smaller tender boat, then washing the kayaks out and preparing the oars. Once they judged the vessels ready, I hollered across the water for J to come back and join me. 

(Those voice projection exercises from drama keep paying off in strange little ways.)

It's always mind-boggling how fast clouds move. This window of good weather lasted only 40 mins, and turned out to be the only time the sky wasn't entirely grey for the entire 8 days we were in Vietnam. It was all too brief, but having experienced the full potential of the Bay, nothing could take back our memories of that display, and its magic continued to touch everything else we saw along the way.  

Still, even sans the sun, J & I had an excellent little kayaking expedition. By way of a small tunnel through one of the rocks, we paddled out to the open sea and round a couple of islands, passing a number of pebble beaches. We did a few loops, and ended up parking our kayak on the first flat rocky shore. It turned out to be a narrow strip of land - a few steps and we were facing a wholly different side of the bay. For a while it was as though we were the only people around - no other vessels plied that stretch of water, and our own boat was out of sight. It was peaceful and really quite magical.

After a whole day of strenuous activity, our last stop on the tour that afternoon was far more relaxed. We sailed back near Vung Vieng Floating Village to visit a state-run pearl farm, where three different kinds of pearl oysters are cultivated: South Sea Pearl Oysters (7 years for a good-sized pearl), Tahitian Pearl Oysters (5 years) and Japanese Pearl Oysters (3 years). 

The pearl culturing process is extremely technical and requires a skilled hand and a delicate touch. First, membrane tissue needs to be harvested from shells that produce an extremely lustrous nacre, also known as mother of pearl. This membrane is responsible for the production of nacre, and crucial for pearls to form. Next, a nucleus for the pearl is created by milling suitable shells down into perfect spheres. The host oysters are gently pried open, and a small incision is made into the gonads of the oyster, and the nucleus and membrane are both inserted inside. 

Every day, dozens of oysters are seeded by hand here, but not all of them form a pearl, and only 10% of all their oysters go on to produce nice pearls. There's also no way of knowing which oysters have successfully formed pearls without opening them fully and slicing the oyster up, which kills them. There was a demonstration tank with oysters that had been reared for a little over a year, and Nam had one of the kids pick out an oyster from a tank. 

We didn't have great odds going in, but somehow our oyster turned out to be harbouring a small but flawlessly round pearl, tinged with gold. According to the big sign on what different pearl colours represent, apparently we'll all get rich in the coming year. Hooray!

The jewelry shop attached to the farm was laden with ropes of pearls of all shades and sizes, and it was quite dizzying to look at. The other ladies on the tour were quite interested in shopping, so while we waited J and I went walking along the deck to look at the oysters. 

At the end of the excursion, the day boat dropped us off in the capable hands of the Royal Wings Cruise staff, who provided us with iced tea and cool towels to refresh ourselves once we stepped on deck. It was a much bigger boat than the Garden Bay, and having been constructed at the beginning of 2015, looked a little fresher as well. 

We were then ushered to our room, which turned out to be one of the two Royal Suite Cabins on board this 5-star luxury liner. Between the intricate wood panelling on the ceiling, the chaise lounge and the King-sized bed topped with the fluffiest duvet I've seen in awhile, I didn't quite know where to look when they first threw the door open. 

We never got round to using it in the end, but most impressive thing to look at was the jacuzzi in the bathroom. I'm not too fussed: when I tried to shower, the water temperature kept veering wildly beyond "arctic wastes" and "surface of the sun", so staying away was probably a good idea. 

Our massage voucher was only good for one person, so we traded in our bottle of wine for an extra massage so we both got to go. It was J's first professional massage, so I tagged along to the spa deck to provide moral support. Mainly that involved lounging around in the warm cinnamon-scented space and chatting J through the process. 

The third floor of the boat has a special karaoke bar/disco that operates after 8 pm. I was all ready to get my party on, but I ended up nodding off halfway through dinner after the long day. Alas!

Royal Wings was quite an interesting contrast to Garden Bay. The boat and our room on Royal Wings was admittedly a lot nicer, but because it was so big, service a lot less personal than it had been on Garden Bay. Since the tables are all separated compared to the communal dining style of Garden Bay, the rest of the passengers seemed a little less friendly as well. It was really good to have experienced both styles of cruising. Now if only there was a boat where you could have it all...

Our last excursion of the cruise was to visit the Thien Canh Son Cave. Apparently it used to be called Rat's Cave, as the locals would squirrel away stores there to be kept safe from incoming storms. It's more recently acquired a far more sophisticated-sounding moniker - Cave of Heavenly Landscape Mountain. 

Quite the drastic re-naming, but to be fair, the entrance to the cave is nestled under a wide canopy of banyan trees, and to get to it you have to ascend some rather steep stairs. 

More importantly, the view up top really is quite lovely. 

None of my pictures were able to do the cave any justice. Clusters of stalactites shimmered overhead in one chamber, while another ceiling looked like reflected desert dunes. 

There's another way into the cave, but that's surrounded by steep cliff walls that drop off into the sea below. 

One of the other tourists in the cave marvelled at how we were still allowed to touch the walls and other formations around the cave ("Everywhere else in the world seems to rope their caves off!"), but I supposed it's really only a matter of time before they do that here too. 

Checkout time is 9 am on the boat, so housekeeping can work their magic on the rooms to make them look good as new for the next batch of guests. We missed this announcement, and only found out about the checkout policy when a very startled housekeeper found us puzzling over Indian soaps that had been dubbed over in Vietnamese at around 9.30 am. I would have liked to linger longer in our room - the view from the upper deck (where we ended up after leaving the room) was probably clearer, but there's a lot to be said for being cocooned in a soft and warm duvet as you watch the islands drift lazily past. 

We wandered the boat till we found the fruit carving session that had been organized to keep the guests occupied before brunch was served. Dinner the night before had featured some very artful displays, including a dragon carved out of unripe mangoes. This demonstration was a little simpler, and showcased some of the basic techniques used in the art. The resulting "flower pot" was still impressive. 

By the time brunch was over, we were in sight of the harbor, and the massive ferris wheel at the top of the hill. When we were gone, work had progressed, and it seemed as though all the cars had finally been added to the wheel. I fixed my eyes on it, but couldn't make out if anyone was working on it as we pulled in. It was another long bus ride back to Hanoi, but the experience was certainly worth the journey. 

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