We met Dai in our hotel lobby at 8:15 as agreed. He had no means of transporting us down to the boat loading area, so we got the bikes out an road the 2km or so to the peer. There was an official bicycle parking area across the street where we locked the bikes and got two tickets back in return. The number on the tickets matched a number they wrote on our seats with chalk.
Then we walked across the street, bought our entrance ticket for the caves, and hopped on our boat. The first adventure was watching the crew try to untangle our boat from all the other boats that are double and triple parked along the dock area. There were throngs of other tourists boarding boats and heading out at the same time, so the whole scene was a bit of chaos. After pushing back, the seas were calm and the ride was smooth.
Less than an hour out, we came to the first cave, Dau Go. The World Heritage symbol is advertised on a small sign on the hillside as you approach this island. The other give-away is that there are about a dozen large tourist ships tied up here, each equipped to hold 30-100 people. I took my flashlight and followed the crowds up the shore to the cave entrance. However, upon entering, I realized that no lights were needed here. The massive cavern was lit-up by multi-colored spotlights and the route through was paved over for easy access by the hundreds who visit here daily. The cave was spectacular though. If I hadn't already been to two of the greatest limestone caves in the US (Carlsbad in NM and Mammoth in KY) I would have been blown away by the size and beauty of the place. Nevertheless, I was quite impressed to find this cave inside such a small island in this bay.
After seeing a second, less impressive cave on the same island, we re-boarded our boat. The next stop on our itinerary was a ways away, so the captain, who did not speak any English, tried to stall and offer us some other commercial opportunities closer to the home port. First was a stop at a floating fish market where we were encouraged to buy some fish for lunch. Since our lunch had already been paid for, we passed. Next a girl came up on a small boat and offered us a side-trip to fake Hang Luon. Pass again. After some convincing, the captain returned to the original itinerary which entailed over an hour of motoring further out into the bay.
Although we had negotiated a price for this whole boat based on a 5USD per hour rate, we were surprised to find two other passengers freeloading a ride with us. They were two Vietnamese men who started out riding in the cabin with the captain in order to disguise the fact that they were passengers. However, they both spoke English pretty well, so after this first stop, they both ended up riding up front with us. Mr. Gong is a English teacher working in the area. He says he makes about 600USD per year, which is above the national average, but this was his first trip to the Bay. Phu is a driver in Saigon, but he returns to Ninh Binh, near Hanoi, every year or so to visit his family. This boat trip was also his first ride around the bay. They helped us straighten our words like du lich (tourism) and sua chua (fresh OR sour milk-- editor's note; we later learned that sua chua was simply yogurt, which is kind o fresh sour milk...) as well as dai (foreigner) which we could not seem to find in our phras books. We enjoyed their company.
The next cave lacked fancy stalagmites and whatnot, so there were also no other boats around. We actually used the flashlights a bit to explore how deep this cave would go. I would have liked to go farther, but my achilles tendon was still hurting me from the cycling. Next we stopped for lunch at one of the many floating houses in the area. Although we had not bought any fancy fish from the market, the cook still managed to fix an amazing spread of shrimp, grilled fish, veggies, spring rolls, and rice. All our favorite foods. We felt a bit silly sitting at the table in the boat eating while the other passengers and the inhabitants of the house sat out on the porch passing the time. We tried to invite Gong and Phu in to join us, but they refused. The boathouse was inhabited by three generations of one family as well as an unmarried sister maybe. There really was a porch to the house, with a couple hammocks hanging from the canopy. Connected to the front were eight netted pools with various kind of sea life wiggling around inside. The children of the house were paddling themselves around in fat canoes that looked like giant baskets woven out of bamboo or the like. The men seemed to be out working or fishing while the women stayed home and listened to the craziest assortment of dance music that I have ever heard.
Other stops in the afternoon included a circular inlet that could only be accessed by a low-clearance boat through a little tunnel and Ti Top, an island
with a lookout built on the top of it. I took panoramic photographs at both spots. From there, we headed back into open waters for the trip back to Bai Chay. Despite some minor confusion with the captain, the trip was pretty cool overall. The only thing I would recommend is getting a larger group together to split the fixed cost of the boat for the day. Also, an overnight trip would allow you to explore further out and play around in the caves more.
The highlight of the evening consisted of a short search for a restaurant selling Ha Long beer. I didn't drink much beer until I moved to Japan a couple years ago. In Japan, drinking beer was the only way to get a large drink until Starbucks came along. While traveling, beer is a great way to avoid tainted water and yet not leave a stream of plastic bottles that will rot the landscape for years to come. Anyway, we had had our fill of Hanoi and Halida, not to mention Heineken and Tiger, so we wanted a bottle of the local brew. However, one restaurant owner told us that it was only available on tap and then only at cheap roadside stops. Another restaurant told us that it was only available in the summer. Eventually we found a place that was able to present six bottles of chilled Ha Long Beer. And, they cooked up the best meal we have had yet. All the stuff we had grown to love, plus our first real plate of Pho noodles and a great rendition of the spinach-like vegetable. Good stuff.