Thursday, January 31, 2013

Day 11 - Halong Bay, Vietnam

For the sake of accuracy and for those interested in assessing the weather at this time of year, our visit to Halong Bay took place from December 19 - 20, 2012.

Today the Millennium is scheduled to arrive in Halong Bay, Vietnam at 1:00 pm. We will disembark shortly thereafter for our overnight stay on a junk. I have been looking forward to this adventure for the entire cruise. I selected a luxury junk and am hopeful that it will live up to our expectations.

The weather is much colder today and a huge difference from the balmy temps we had in Hoi An. I put on a sweater and my fleece jacket and went out on the balcony to take a few photos. It is forecast to be 79 degrees F but it currently feels more like 50.

Our current position is somewhere in the Gulf of Tonkin.  We are sailing toward the northern coast of Vietnam at 16 knots and the seas are 10 feet. Hopefully it will smooth out as we exit the Gulf of Tonkin and enter Halong Bay.

Gulf of Tonkin

Many may remember the Gulf of Tonkin as the seminal event that changed the course of the Vietnam War. I wasn't born then but have read about it and its impact on the war. There may have been a lecture on this topic on the ship.  I don't know because I stopped reading the daily program a while ago. I have been unimpressed with the quality of the speakers on this cruise. It is great to have the knowledge but as one astute public speaker has said "You have to be believed to be heard". I don't think the Celebrity lecturers have any idea what they are talking about.

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was passed by Congress in August 1964. It was drafted in response to two separate incidents just a few days apart between North Vietnam and the United States. On August 2, 1964 the destroyer, USS Maddox was on an intelligence patrol and subsequently engaged three North Vietnamese Navy torpedo boats. A battle ensued with the Maddox firing over 280 shells. There were no US casualties but 3 North Vietnam boats were damaged and 4 North Vietnamese sailors died. The US National Security Agency claimed that another incident occurred just 2 days later on August 4th. However, it was later determined this was just false radar images and there was no second incident.

The end result of these events was the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. This granted President Lyndon B.Johnson the authority to assist any Southeast Asian country whose government was considered to be jeopardized by communist aggression. US conventional forces were soon deployed and the war escalated with the commencement of open warfare against North Vietnam.

Map of the area

Map of Gulf of Tonkin Area and Southeast Asia

A copy of the official document

Gulf of Tonkin Resolution passed by Congress

It would seem impossible for something like this to happen again. However, if you look at the build up to the war with Iraq and substitute 2003 for 1964 it does not look so surprising.

Today we decided to take advantage of the Elite benefit and have breakfast in Olympic.

Location of Elite Breakfast

The Olympic has a small but nice assortment of smoked salmon, cured meats, fruit and pastries. The chocolate croissants were a bit smaller and not as tasty as the ones in the Oceanview. However it was very relaxing and nice starting our day here. They even brought me green tea with some honey.


Foggy view from the Olympic Restaurant

It is quite misty outside and the view is not great but looking on the bright side, the mist may add to the mystical character of Halong Bay.

Bruce, the Captains Club host was present to greet us when we entered the restaurant. He has been quite visible throughout the cruise and is trying very hard to make everyone happy. As this is a tender port we asked Bruce about getting Priority Tender tickets. He said he would send them up to our room.

As we departed Olympic there was a display of the tea they were serving this afternoon. It looks much nicer than the Elite tea we attended in the Metropolitan. There is a charge for the tea service of $25 to participate. If we were not going to be off the ship I would have gladly signed up.

Special Afternoon Tea

I decided to stop and see Jennifer, the Concierge about our arrival and pickup in Halong Bay. It had been 2 months since I last communicated with the company handling our overnight Junk booking. I had sent an email reconfirming the reservation a few days ago but did not hear back. Now I was starting to get worried. I   explained my concern to Jennifer and she kindly offered to call the company. Once they answered she handed me the phone.

I called the direct number for the Junk. I said we had not arrived yet and would be on shore around 1:15 pm. The gentleman I spoke with said he did not speak English but responded that they were expecting us and added, "see ya later". I appreciated the levity and it made me feel better. His English seemed pretty good and much better than my Vietnamese! Best of all, there was no charge for the call.

I was much more relaxed now that our reservation was fine and seemed like the day would go smoothly. We went back to the room to take in the views of our arrival in Halong Bay. The Cruise Director, Steve made the morning announcement. Again it seemed strange he was providing navigational information. Was the Captain ill? Was he still on the ship? His absence was a mystery.

At the beginning of the Bay we saw a lot of fishing boats and some freighters.

Entering Halong Bay

The various outcroppings in this section did not appear that high.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site. They bay features thousands of limestone karsts and inlets of various shapes and sizes. The limestone has gone through 500 million years of formation. The name Halong means "descending dragon". The local legend denotes that when Vietnam was first developing it had to fight against invaders. The gods assisted by sending a family of dragons as protectors. The dragons began spitting out jewels of jade. The jewels turned into the islands and inlets dotting the bay. Magically numerous rock formations appeared on the water blocking the invader's ships. The ships struck the rocks and each other and were defeated. The dragons then decided to peacefully live in the bay.

Halong Bay is home to 14 endemic floral species and 60 endemic fauna species. Archaeologists have noted the presence of prehistoric human beings in this area tens of thousands of years ago.

Starboard side of Deck 10 viewing the bay

We had a great view from our balcony of the limestone karsts doting the area. Lots of people were on on deck below photographing our arrival. Many passengers on the ship are taking the 4 hour trip (each way) either independently or through the ship to Hanoi. In my planning I was confident that by now we would be more than satisfied with the large urban centers and be ready for something different.

I found several Junk companies and booked one for an overnight stay. The company is called Heritage Line ( and the ship is named the Halong Violet. The Violet is a luxury junk and holds just 12 people in six rooms. The company did not require a deposit to hold the reservation but I did provide my credit card to guarantee the room. Most of the other companies required a deposit.

Little boat among the karsts

As we got closer the karsts appeared much higher. I have not been to Guilin, China but they have similar topography.  I wonder which one is more striking.

Lots of people were on the Deck 10 terrace below us. Unfortunately the smoking from the right side was very annoying. It smelled awful even on our balcony above them. We tried to ignore it and take in the beauty of the area.

It did feel pretty cold outside. In addition to my sweater and fleece I added a jacket.

We took a short break from the viewing and the smoking. Our stateroom attendant Franklin came with our Priority Tender passes. Although some people may not like the "class system" with over 2000 people on the ship the Priority Tender passes in a busy port are a necessity. One of the nice things of sailing on a smaller ship is that the need for priority tender passes is moot.

After a few hours we were now getting very close to the port of Bai Chay for Halong Bay. The view started to resemble what I had seen in classic photos of Halong Bay. 

Halong Bay

We decided to get some lunch around 11:45 am. I was not happy with my selection. I should have gone for a salad or sandwich instead. I went to the Asian section as it was the closest.  I am starting to get a cold so that may have something to do with my poor choice. 

Not a great lunch

Lots of boats and perhaps a junk in the bay

I went inside to get some dessert and could now see the port of Bai Chay through the window. 

The port of Bay Chai  for Halong Bay


It was now time to go. We grabbed our overnight bags and went to Michael's Club to join the other Elites for the priority tendering. Bruce, the Captain's Club host was wandering around in his Santa's hat with the white pom pom bobbing along his head. The room was very crowded and with all the overnight bags close to bursting. We found a place to stand near the exit door on the side closest to the stairs. 

Bruce looked nervous as no announcement had been made after 20 minutes of waiting. The natives were beginning to get restless.  After another 15 minutes went by we wondered what the delay was about and hoped we would be off soon. At 1:45 pm the announcement came that the ship was cleared and we were allowed to proceed to the tenders. I was near the front of the pack and went downstairs but I lost my mother part of the way. I could have walked right onto the tender but waited for her to show up. She had taken a wrong turn and lost the group heading down to Deck 2. 

Luckily there was still room on the tender and we had seats near the door. We made the 10 minute trip to the Bai Chay port. 

On the tender leaving the Millennium

The dock in Bai Chay is more like a floating barge. We walked off and read all the name signs being held by the guides. I was not expecting to be met at the dock but thought I should check anyway. Our name was not among them so we turned left and walked as previously instructed toward the Royal Pier for our meeting point to get to the Violet.

The walk was a lot longer than the 7 minutes I had anticipated. It turned out we docked further away than I realized. We stopped at a hotel across the street to see if they would call the junk for us but they pretended that the phone did not work. I don't know why they were so unfriendly. I wasn't sure how to call them from my cell.

We finally reached the Emeraude Cruise Pier and I knew we were now very close.

Emeraude Cruises
We continued on our way and after 8 more minutes arrived at the Royal Pier. As the Celebrity tender process was delayed and the walk was much longer than I expected I was worried they may have left without us. I was very relieved to see the Violet tender was still  there. I ran up to the two gentlemen present who seemed a little taken aback by my enthusiasm. They asked us to wait as they called one of the female staff who went to look for us at Bai Chay. She took a taxi to the Royal Pier and we were soon on our way to the Violet.

Violet Tender

So far so good!

The majority of junk passengers travel to Halong Bay by car from Hanoi. The embarkation time is based on their arrival and the junks usually depart around noon. Since Millennium would not anchor until 1:00 pm I had arranged for the tender to take us to the Violet at an additional charge. 

On our way by tender to the Violet
Originally the tender trip was estimated at 15 - 20 minutes. Since we were late it was closer to 35 minutes. The tender was very nice and also fun! We had the driver plus our guide and another employee in the rear. Perhaps to make sure no one fell out! We wore our life vests as we traveled at a high speed James Bond style among the karsts in the distance.

We started to notice the little junks in the water.   

A junk

We were surprised to see this large tanker go by. It sort of broke the tranquility, but not for long as we arrived at the Violet. 

The Violet took a similar journey but at a much slower pace. The tender was great and the fun was just to begin as the Violet came into view. The Violet is a  luxury junk but I still had no idea if it would be fantastic or a nightmare.

Halong Violet

We came aboard and were both immediately very impressed by how wonderful everything looked. We did have a slight incident upon our arrival when the tender got stuck in gear and slammed into the tires hanging on the side of the boat. There was no damage to either boat but but my mother hurt her forearm with a superficial skin wound. It was under the long sleeve turtle neck she was wearing and she had a tetanus booster so we weren't worried.

The guide we were with hit the floor of the boat pretty hard. I was very glad she was alright.

Dining Area
After a cup of ginger tea to soothe her nerves and some antibiotic cream caringly administered by the stellar Violet crew to mother's arm, we climbed into little row boats to visit the floating village and museum. 

Tender waiting to meet us at the museum
Mother was not yet fully mentally recovered as we sat in the row boat gazing at the scenery. I think we were both still a little stunned from the "collision". The oars splashing gently through the emerald green water and the stillness and grandeur of the karsts helped us relax again.

We approached the floating village which can be seen in the distance. There are currently over 800 people living in four floating villages. The government has decreed to reduce this number of these villagers by half. That is unfortunate but in order to keep the bay clean and a tourist draw this step appears necessary.

Floating Village in the distance

Part of the Floating Village

Once on the bay it was not cold out at all. It was very pleasant with just a sweater or a light jacket. Each group of guests had their own little row boat and person to take them to the museum.

Row boats going to the museum

The Floating Village was a lot smaller than I expected. This must be one of the tiny ones. 

Floating Village

Only a few people were visible in the little buildings. I had read that village visits had been stopped by the government as the villagers were getting too aggressive soliciting tourists. That was certainly not the case here as no one approached us.

Floating Village
This little girl was very cute. As we got close she ran back inside. 

A fisherman and "fisherwoman"

There is a family of six from Michigan traveling on the Violet. They also have a young child who stayed back on the junk with her nanny. 
These guests are from Michigan

The blow horns are for emergency warnings in case of a typhoon. Our guide told us many of the people in the village will be sent to the city in case of a weather emergency. The men usually stay behind though. They can hide in the caves. They will tie all the boats together in one huge mass to keep them hopefully together and not smashing into one another or against the rocks. 

The water is a very pretty color

My mother who is doubly blessed with bionic ears and an eagle eye noticed two monkeys climbing high up one of the rocks. It is rare to spot monkeys here and we took it as sign of good luck. They are on the right hand side of the rock. 

Looking at the vegetation and seeing monkeys! 

We arrived at the museum which celebrates the history of the bay and its inhabitants. We toured the different exhibits in the museum which were very interesting. The government of Norway funds the museum which was surprising.

Halong Bay Museum

Diagram explaining the area
This is clothing for the wedding ceremony. 

The model junks were built by the villagers. 

The water is a beautiful color up close. This is the back of the museum. 

A model of the floating village below. Our guide told us that the "sanitation department" comes several times a week to collect refuse and garbage. 

The tender instead of the row boats was used to take us to our next stop. We were about to depart when the Violet manager realized we were missing two people. We were all looking around when suddenly the very nice Chinese American couple from our group appeared on the museum dock. They quickly boarded and we were all glad we didn't leave without them.

Tender to take us to our next stop

We next headed to a cave. 

About 15 minutes later we arrived at a cave. My mother decided to use her injury as a reason not to disembark and instead stayed on the tender. 

Cave Entrance

The stalagmites were amazing. 

The cave was huge and very interesting. The use of strategic lighting combined with the dramatic setting made our visit quite rewarding.

The manager of the Violet explained the history of the cave.  

By standing back I was able to appreciate the immense beauty of the cave. The height was truly amazing. 

I went back to the front of the cave to take some photos before departing. In warmer months you can have dinner here. 

Information on the caves
The tender pilot waits patiently for our return. 

We exited the cave and boarded the tender for our return to the Violet. It was starting to get dark as we returned to the Violet. I was very happy that we did so much today. 

Returning to the Violet
After we arrived we went back up to our room to drop our jackets.

Our room on the Violet is called the Cloud Suite. It is the only suite on the junk (there are 4) with twin beds. They will separate the beds during the turndown service. There is a TV and our own private balcony.

The room is really heavenly! We were very happy!!

The bathroom was also very nice with a glass shower and brass sink. 

Even the views from the bath tub were great!

Enormous bathtub!

Brass sink

This is the view from our private balcony. There are two bamboo loungers. 

The flooring was beautiful too. We did not want to go back to the Celebrity Millennium. Maybe they can take us to Hong Kong??

The floor to ceiling windows were very clean and had nice heavy drapes. 

Directly outside our room was a lounge to share with the suite next door. 

These are the stairs to go down to the ground floor
Our room is separated from the suite next door by the stairs going up to the top deck. The room on the left is the Moon Suite. The Dragon and Phoenix suites are at the front of the boat. There are two regular rooms on the ground level. 

Our room is on the right
Although it was hard to leave the comfort of the room we went back downstairs for cocktails and the cooking demonstration.

Cocktails were offered and we were asked to review the dinner menu and make our selections for the meal to be served later from the provided menu. We had a choice of 3 soups, 3 starters, 6 mains and 3 desserts. The menu was continental with a Vietnamese flair.

Taking the dinner order

Bar area in the rear

After the orders were taken there was a vegetable spring roll making demonstration. These were the cold ones and no cooking was required.The chef demonstrated for the guests how to make them. It was a lot more involved than I imagined! There were lots of layers and the thin sheets to roll it all in could fall apart if you were not careful.

Chef demonstration

Up close

Rolling it

Cutting it with scissors
Final product
After the chef demonstrated the process we were invited to try making them ourselves. Two people from our group participated. It was fun to watch. The major challenge seemed to be the plastic gloves were hard to manage and kept getting in the way.

One of the guests making spring roll
She did a great job but her roll was a lot fatter than the chef's!

We relaxed with our cocktails until it was time for dinner. I noticed all the life vests and the fire extinguishers at the front door. I am glad they take our safety very seriously. 

Front door of the Violet

These are the stairs to our room. Our room is located directly above the front door. 

Dinner on the Violet

It was now time for dinner and we selected a table by the window. They had candles and beautiful flowers on the table.

Our table

I had a Mai Tai and my mother had a glass of wine.

After several poor meals on the Millennium I was eagerly looking forward to our dinner on the Violet. For a starter we both had the delectable cinnamon soup. It was amazing!

The soup is a pumpkin base and infused with cinnamon plus fresh cream.

Cinnamon infused pumpkin soup with fresh cream

It was delicious! The cream was very light. The taste of the cinnamon and pumpkin was blended perfectly. The two other soup choices were chicken and mushroom and baby corn, and a Viet style spicy soup. 

For the next course I had the Banana flower salad with fried squid (who knew bananas had flowers?) and my mother had the salmon salad. I loved the salad and squid. It was flavorful yet subtle. 

Squid with Banana Flowers
These are what banana flowers looks like. 

Banana Flower
The petals are under the purple layer and are called "bracts" and don't actually blossom. Once soaked in lemon juice or water, the petals become leek-like. 

The other starter we did not have was a papaya salad with dried beef. 

Salmon Salad
For our mains my mother had grilled duck and I had the BBQ Seafood. The sauce for the seafood was a little too pungent but otherwise the dish was a winner. The shrimp, scallop and clam were cooked perfectly.

BBQ Seafood
The additional main courses were Roasted New Zealand Lamb , Baked Shrimp Ball with Minced Pork, Grilled Australian Beef, and Roasted Chicken Breast with Black Pepper Sauce. 

I ordered the Opera cake for dessert but I think I got the Tiramisu instead. It was very good regardless. They also had fruit for dessert. 

Opera Cake or Tiramisu?

Dinner was wonderful! We were both very happy. We also enjoyed the conversation with the nice English couple sitting beside us at dinner. The Michigan contingent sat in the center of the room. The child they are traveling with made an early exit with her nanny. The Chinese American couple were near the rear.

The English couple were a lot of fun. They were in their early 50's and doing a land tour of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The fact they were touring Vietnam by land was even more fascinating since the wife is an executive in the UK for Aon Insurance. Aon underwrite the insurance for 80% of the world's ships, including cruise ships, freighters and tankers. She confirmed that Celebrity is a client. I made a joke that we were glad she was nearby as our captain has been MIA and we were a little worried about sailing out of the bay tomorrow night at 10:00 pm. This is actually sort of true!

As the sad anniversary of the Costa Concordia disaster was approaching we talked about that for a little while. Aon insured the Concordia and our fellow guest was invited to visit the site but declined. She said it was too disturbing. She described how they are building a superstructure around the ship and it will then be floated out. Because two of the bodies are still unaccounted for the demolition is being handled with the hope of finding the last two victims. They also need to be careful of any refrigerants or other toxic chemicals which may damage the marine environment.

We also chatted about happier subjects like how she was born in Singapore and lived in many different places as her father was a diplomat. She also told us a funny story about her 80+ year old father sailing recently for 2 months on a cruise ship. On the last night he packed all his clothes forgetting he needed to get dressed to disembark in the morning. Her sister picked him up in Southampton only to see a vigorously healthy man arriving by wheelchair in his pajamas! He was too embarrassed to walk off the ship!

It was great fun meeting them and interesting to learn a little about the cruise insurance business too. We tried not to be too intrusive.  Her knowledge and expertise was very impressive. Her husband was also very nice and provided some witty British commentary to some of his wife's remarks.

We were the last people to depart the dining area as we went upstairs.

When we arrived at our room the turndown service had magically transformed the room into an inviting sanctuary. The name of our room, Cloud Suite certainly seems appropriate.

We now have twin beds

We now have twin beds and we changed into our PJ's. We opened the curtains so we could view the few other junks at anchor during the night. I took some notes about our day and then tried to go to sleep. I was so transfixed in watching the boats glide around that I finally had to force myself to close my eyes and go to bed. I woke up an hour or so later to use the restroom. When I climbed back in bed I could have sworn one of the other boats was on a collision course with us. I was too tired to get too excited about it and was sure it must be an illusion and all will be peaceful in the morning.

Other junks gliding by at anchor overnight

Tomorrow we will have a few activities on the Violet and then return to shore for an afternoon tour from the cruise ship.