Having taken the tender boat from Diamond Princess to West Ha Long we hopped aboard the complimentary shuttle bus that very soon took us across the cable-stayed bridge over the channel to East Ha Long (Hong Gai). Our drop-off point (and location where we’d be able to return from) was outside the Vincom Plaza.
We’d been in the position of not knowing where we’d be dropped off prior to actually arriving (the information provided by Princess Cruises the night before in our daily programme was vague). This is an area where cruise lines could be a bit more proactive and push that sort of information way ahead of travel so that passengers who want to do their own thing can plan a little better. I think we all can guess why they don’t. We didn’t know where we’d be, we knew we didn’t really fancy any of the organised trips for a change, but thought we’d be able to find plenty to see on our own regardless. During our cruise into Ha Long Bay we’d spotted a large, white thing in the distance in the gap between some islets and it had piqued our interest enough to set off in that direction.
We watched as the majority of fellow cruise passengers hopped off the shuttle bus and headed straight for the large building that housed numerous stores – each to their own – while we braved crossing the main road and made immediately for the promenade and its views: the nearest islands of Ha Long Bay and the many boats of locals anchored in something akin to floating islands themselves. There was no threat of rain but the angle of the sun was illuminating the thin veil of cloud like a horizon-to-horizon diffuse flash box and producing some challenging photo conditions.
We walked eastwards at a pace suitably low to try to eliminate the onset of sweating from every pore (a Sisyphean task) with plenty of stops along the palm-lined paved area to gaze out at the sights that nature provided. When we’ve travelled and come across views that to us are simply stunning like this we’ve often wondered if the people who reside in these sorts of places no longer realise how spectacular a place it is in which they live.
Despite the high heat and humidity there was quite a strong wind. It was not in the least bit cooling and obviously a regular occurrence due to the geography in this part of Vietnam as we spotted many of the palms had their leaves tied around the trunks of the trees to stop them being a nuisance to pedestrians or cyclists.
Most of the attractive sights were out towards the sea, of course, but there were still some things to be seen inland: an interesting gateway to a park, a mix of architectural styles in some of the buildings, and some of those fabulous limestone formations on land that pull in all the visitors.
Something we started to become aware of was the condition of the water in and around Ha Long Bay. We’d probably assumed that with such beautiful and natural views as far as the eye could see and the general climate of the area and the abundance of what was clearly a fishing-based industry for the locals that the water would be gleaming. It was far from that. It was very unpleasant to see. It wasn’t just that it was murky but that the exposed shore areas were completely littered with rubbish. In some cases there were signs that locals were possibly making tea then leaving broken crockery where it fell (although it could easily have had a ritualistic reason or have nothing to do with tea whatsoever; difficult to guess really) but we also saw what we had to assume was washed overboard cargo gathered up on the land. There just seemed to be no effort made to clean any of it up which was so sad to see. With a growing tourism industry Ha Long really needs to get on top of this situation.
With such bad conditions of the sea it was odd although also pleasant to see some wedding shoots taking place along the shoreline which are covered in this separate post: Ha Long Bay Wedding Shoot. It’s a strange thing to think of those beautiful pictures with the stunning backdrops yet know that a few metres away the water is lapping away filled with jetsam.
Very close to the wedding photography spot along Ha Long’s promenade we spotted a buddha head hanging from a young palm growing from limestone. It was equal parts amusing and creepy.
Hugging the coastline on our continuing walk we started to come into view of the large white structure we’d been in search of but first there were more of those natural formations to admire. There were a few in this area with wooden walkways around them leading us to wonder if it was possible to visit the places and explore them close up but we didn’t say any signs that there were people doing that or that it was actually allowed. The overall structures had the feel of James Bond villain lairs to them.
And so we came to the white thing, the structure that we’d seen from our balcony as the last of the morning’s drizzle had eased off and which we’d gone from suspecting was another cruise ship to some kind of super yacht to realising it couldn’t be either of those things and then needing to find out for ourselves. It was an Exhibition and Trade Centre. We were somewhat disappointed. Situated on the eastern side of an open square which likely gets used for events in the area there was no doubting the impressive architectural design of the building with its sweeping curves. The colours and shape felt very marine-like and fitting for a location close to the sea. However, there was nothing going on inside as far as we could see. The area was devoid of anyone else save one other couple who’d completed a similar walk to us and who were at this point posing for leaping photos for one another in the open spaces. We admired the shape of the building for a couple of minutes before making the decision to head back the way we’d come in search of something to eat.
As we’d neared the exhibition centre we’d passed a black glass building which had caught our eyes for a number of reasons: the modern, very square design was striking compared to what else we’d seen in our time visiting Vietnam; there was a café which had a prominent sign proclaiming the presence of beer (and we’re very fond of trying beers locally when we travel); there were a number of military artefacts outside. We knew this would be the place we’d stop for something to eat and drink but first to the objects of warfare. There weren’t many of them but if seeing aircraft or missiles or cannons up close is something that interests you then as a free, open-air activity if you’re nearby and likely to want to stop for lunch or dinner too then there’s certainly an appeal here. This was the second day in a row we’d been to a city in Vietnam and stumbled across military equipment for anyone to see with a larger display having been present outside the Imperial City at Huế too.
In addition to the weapons of war there were a few more cultural sights to see outside this building.
A quick nose at the memorabilia done we headed inside the My Way Café and ordered two locally-produced beers as well as two random elements from the menu. We didn’t find the service particularly friendly here but there was no faulting the food, whatever it was, and the drinks were so desperately needed by this point we were in the mood to forgive a lot. Something else quite exciting (definitions vary) happened here because there was no cutlery offered and I didn’t want to ask for some so had to endeavour to use the supplied chopsticks. Now, I’m sure a lot of people have no trouble with chopsticks but they’re an eating implement I’ve never been able to use properly. I’ve had people show me finger positions and how to use one finger as a spring between the sticks and how to hold them near the tip or near the base and it’s made not the slightest bit of difference to my inability to do anything but curse eastern culture for not embracing forks. However, somehow, magically, it just clicked in that café and I suddenly found a way to eat with them and really quite easily. Bizarrely, when comparing my eating style to that of my wife’s – who has no problem with them – it was completely different. Hey, whatever works, works.
Rested, a little cooler, happy that we’d eaten and drunk locally, and ridiculously pleased that I’d taught myself to use chopsticks we departed and continued our walk back along the Ha Long Bay shoreline taking many of the same sort of photos that had been taken earlier but with the justifications that the sunlight was different and you can never take too many photos of views like these anyway.
It seemed that the Vietnamese locals didn’t share our disgust at the condition of the water off Ha Long as we spotted a group of swimmers at one point. We even got a wave from one of them just after I’d stopped to snap a shot.
As we approached the area where the cruise-supplied shuttle bus would be the waters filled with those boats again, the bulk of them clearly for fishing only but others looking more like houses at sea.
We could have stayed a couple more hours had we wanted but the heat and humidity had got to us and we’d walked a fair distance so felt it made sense to get back onboard ship early for once and see if we could get some laundry done before everyone else returned and thought the same thing. We wandered through Vincom Plaza and did some shopping for bits and pieces – mainly food – as much to use up the local currency we’d brought along as anything else. Our timing on leaving was perfect as we walked out, straight onto a bus, and were off within minutes to head over the Bãi Cháy bridge to West Ha Long where a tender boat was already waiting.
Showered, changed, and laundromat used we contented ourselves with poking our heads out of the balcony every now and then to see the various excursion boats depositing passengers from their tours and other vessels in the area passing to and fro. Our expectation was that it wouldn’t be too long until we would up anchor and cruise out of Ha Long Bay and we were keen to see how it looked from the other direction. That expectation would not be met and that will be explained in the next post from this final stop in Vietnam on our Diamond Princess cruise.