a peaceful pocket & the last train: five days to fall in love with Hanoi 

The only way into the heart of Halong Bay is via tour guided cruise. Although there is a variety of cruise companies to choose from, their itinerary are about the same, and ranges from day tours to 2D1N and 3D2N tours. The size of each ferry is approximately the same too with a capacity of approximately 20 to 25 persons, excluding the crew. We booked our 2D1N tour on Halong Galaxy Cruise through Agoda. Any enquiries we had regarding the tour thereafter were promptly attended to via email. 

Onboard our cruise, we went through an introductory session, where we were all assigned seats in the dining area and allocated our bedrooms. I think the reason for the former is to make accounting for us easier. Refreshments were served while our cruise guide briefed us on safety regulations. We paid a little more for the premium room so ours was located on the second deck with an unobstructed window view. 

If Hanoi city is characterised by the uncheoreographed dance of traffic, its cacophony of honks and symphony roadside chatter, then Halong Bay is its absolute opposite. Lounging on the deck of the ferry, stillness and quiet, like a gentle blanket, envelops you and soothes your senses. Unspoilt by Man, limestone structures rise uncoordinated out of pristine green waters to form the most picturesque scenery. If you googled Halong Bay and wondered if the photos you see on the internet are as good as it is in reality, it is. Out here, Mother Nature does not require the added frills and fancies that Man tend to add to an environment in our attempt to further perfect it. 

A slow afternoon of kayaking at Luon Cave on the first day amidst these breathtaking limestone structures followed by an evening’s short climb up some 200 steps to the viewing gallery at Titov Island left us in greater awe of Mother Nature. While it wasn’t difficult, it was a bit of a steep climb and I would recommend sports shoes at the very least. 

The second day saw us winding through Sung Sot Cave, the largest of caves in Halong Bay. As we meandered through the depths of the dragon’s belly, it truly was a marvel to see the works of Mother Nature. Monkeys, dragons, rabbits – what one would then make of the limestone structure is up to Man’s imagination. 

Not everything about our trip was smooth sailing and fright-free. Because we made the decision to spend a day in Halong City following Halong Bay, we opted out of the return trip via shuttle bus that the tour package provides. This meant we had a transport problem. For the most part, hotels and tour agencies in Vietnam respond pretty promptly to enquiries and have alternative solutions. 

Unfortunately, despite its claim of offering transport solutions, the hotel we were staying at in Halong City had zero response to our enquiries on arranged transport back to Hanoi. The cruise agency was helpful but its private transportation was ridiculously expensive. Thankfully our friendly cruise guide was able to link us up with a friend of his who ran a coach service. It eased my mind a little; except that the worry wart in me combined with an overactive imagination began to play out a million and one tragic scenarios. By the time we arrived in Halong City, I was watching my very own horror story of stranded tourists slowly unfold in my mind’s eye. 

Halong City was a ghost town. Traffic was minimal, pedestrians almost non-existent and every shop was a sad, dusty facade. We were also hoping to hit the beach listed on google map – after all, it was the reason we wanted to spend a day in Halong City. What greeted us instead, was an entire stretch of construction works with posters promising an amazing, new mixed development of entertainment, retail and resorts slated to be completed next year. 

At the hotel, our Villa Room was a room alright. But it was one of 10 other rooms in an old villa off the side of the main hotel building and we were its only occupants. The bathtub with its odd “garden” view looked like the perfect murder spot. K knew I wasn’t comfortable with it and I knew that requesting a room change meant paying more, which our budget may not allow. So we came to a compromise. We agreed to a maximum top up to S$50 for an alternative room. If it isn’t available, i would just have to grit my teeth, say my prayers and hope we survived the night.  Long story short, I got what I wanted and more. We shifted back to the main hotel building to a newly renovated room with 4-star decor for only S$50. And that shuttle bus service our friendly cruise guide arranged for us? It arrived right on time to pick us up and boy, was I craving for the madness of Hanoi city again… 

It didn’t matter that we were stuck in traffic or that manuvearing the street was such a slow process. I was just thankful to be back in civilisation and for our last 15 hours in Vietnam, there was just one thing I really wanted to see: the train that runs right by the back doors of residences. According to some websites, it comes through twice a day at 4pm and 7pm. However, we found that there was no making heads or tails when it operates. By pure luck, we caught it once but it came so suddenly that our cameras were hardly prepared for it. 

Still, it was worth all the time spent along the rail. For the locals, it was just another way of life. Literally, at their doorstep, the railway is their backyard and their street. Here, they cooked, had their hair cut, ate breakfast, commune together and did their laundry. It was a different time, different space and it was fascinating. 

Five days to fall in love with Hanoi… ‘Twas a love affair I wish I could rewind and experience all over again.



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