Saturday, February 2, 2013

Day 12 - Halong Bay, Vietnam (Part 2)

We both slept great! The beds in the Cloud Suite on the Halong Violet were very comfortable. We feel very refreshed. However my cold is still the same, not worse and not better. I am mostly just congested. It looks like it will be a bit warmer today but also cloudier. Today's activities include complimentary yoga on the top deck, optional kayaking, a visit to the beach followed by brunch before returning to shore.

This map is located in the lounge area of the Violet. We took the top route on the right yesterday to reach our current location. We will take the route on the left to return to shore.

Map of Halong Bay

This is a copy of the "emergency plan" on the back of our room door. It provides a helpful diagram of the ship and the location of all the public rooms and the sleeping quarters. Though our room is above the kitchen we never smelled any food. It was also very quite. Didn't even hear a peep!

Emergency Plan

We went out on our balcony to enjoy the views. It is definitely much warmer today than yesterday.

In the daylight we can now easily see the other junks nearby. This is the Jasmine which is a sister ship of the Halong Violet. The other sister ship is the Ginger. Both of these are much larger than our boat. I wish the sails were up. That would be a much nicer photo.

Halong Jasmine
This is another junk floating near us. During the summer of 2012 all the junks in Halong Bay, except the ones registered on Cat Ba Island were required to be painted white. The rumor is the wife of the Director of Tourism in this province, owns a paint company. I think it is a shame because the junks would look much nicer in natural wood. The white paint also chips off very easily and requires a lot more maintenance. 

Very happy that the Ginger hoisted their sails. 

We went up to the top deck to get a better view. This is the first time we have visited this area of the boat. There are lots of chairs to relax and it looks quite inviting. One of the crew came by to offer yoga instruction but we declined.

Top Deck of Halong Violet
Halong Violet sail

I was very happy to see our sail was up!

We stayed on the top deck for about 15 minutes and then went back down for the start of our day. 

Here is the rigging for the sails

This is the location for the anchor

The anchor
The tender is on its way with kayaks for the Chinese American couple. I heard the gentleman request them last night. 

Tender bringing the kayaks
The front door was wide open. It was a little dangerous for the child from Michigan. She came by and almost went flying into the water before her father stopped her. They don't have many young children as guests so it usually is not a problem. 

This is the front door as viewed from the inside of the Violet. The fresh flowers added a nice touch. 

The entire boat is decorated for the Christmas holiday. They even have painted snowflakes on the windows. 

The manager of the Violet explained the activities for the day. We will go the the beach and then check out of our rooms when we return. 

We will take the tender to the beach. 

We all boarded the tender except for my mother, who decided to stay behind. You can see her sitting on our balcony in the photo below. 

Mother on our balcony 

We had a short ride to get to the beach. It didn't seem like beach weather but it wasn't too cold either. 

We could see the Halong Jasmine and Ginger ahead of us who were also using the same beach. 

Halong Ginger and Jasmine

As we approached the beach we could see a man cleaning the sand and his dog beside him. Nice that he is making it tidy for us!

We were told that we can walk up the 100 steps and then there is a dirt path to the top of hill.

Our beach visit
We arrived at the beach and walked along the path to the little huts. 

I assume this sign explains the rules for the beach

Once on shore we had a beautiful view of the bay. 

Another junk sailed by but I don't think they will be using this beach. This junk does not look to be in the best condition. 

We had a great view of the Halong Violet, Jasmine and Ginger. 

Trio of Halong (Heritage Line) Boats
The sand was a little course but the water was very clear and seemed clean. 

I decided to be one of the first from our group to head up the stairs. The first 20 or so were easy but I had to take a few breaks along the way up. 

Climbing the stair to the top
At one of the rest points I took some photos of the boats. You can see the kayaks with our Violet guests approaching the shore in the photo below. 

Two kayaks coming to shore
I wish they did not lower the sails on one of the boats. I am now at the top of the stairs and started on the dirt path the rest of the way. It is very hilly and a challenging climb. 

The three Halong Cruise boats
As I get higher, the view keeps getting smaller!

This was the end of the road for me. I wanted to continue but going down the dirt path was going to be much harder than going up. I was already having trouble climbing up. I was told that once at the very top you could see over 400 boats on the other side. As tempting as that was, I did not want to become a casualty and started to contemplate my decent. 

The climb up on the dirt path was hard!
I must have looked quite puzzled trying to figure out my footing on the way down. A very nice lady from New Zealand offered to help me. I gingerly walked very slowly down with my "Kiwi Sherpa" leading the way! She had on good set of trainers and was very agile straddling the dirt and rocks to help me down. I would of had a lot of trouble without her!

Now that we were at the stairs I easily made my way down to the shore.

I have to say everyone was being very careful coming down. 

Almost down to the bottom
Glad to see the boats are still there!

The 5 year old child with the Michigan family did the climb too. She did very well! It must be nice to have no fear!

Lots of people went swimming. They said the water was cold but that it was very nice.

Shucks, I did not bring my bikini!

This part of the complex. They even have lockers to put your valuables away. The crew from our boat brought a huge basket with towels. I don't think anyone from our group went in the water though. 

Lots of swimmers
This is a photo of the bar with the guy who cleaned the beach standing behind it. His dog is very cute and very well behaved. 

Gee, my mother should have come, there is even shopping!

Pearls for sale on the beach

There are pearl farms in this area too. That would have been interesting to see. 

I guess there is no wind since they all have their sails down now. 

It was now time to leave and we all boarded the tender to go back. The other boats used larger floating barge type vessels to transport their guests home. 

This is the nice Italian couple I met on the beach. They left Italy 7 years ago and now live in the UK. They said they were tired of all the problems in Italy. 

Nice Italian couple and the dog

The views heading back were beautiful too. 

We arrived back on board. I went up to the room to freshen up. I then relaxed on the balcony for a little while reading the Guest information book about Halong Bay. 

We're back!
The book was very interesting. It also mentioned books and movies that took place in Halong bay. In the 1997 James Bond movie, 'Tomorrow Never Dies" Pierce Brosnan and his accomplice attempt to chase down Elliott Carver played by Jonathan Pryce in the Halong Bay area. The Amazing Race season 10, leg 4 which aired on October 8, 2006 featured Halong Bay. 

The classic movie Indochine with actress Catherine Deneurve is one of the best known in which Halong Bay plays a central role. 

While I read the book I could see the other junks sail by. It was really relaxing and I wish we did not have to leave. We will be checking out at 10:00 am and new passengers will be boarding the ship at noon. The Violet offers 1 night and 2 night trips. The 1 night seems to be the most popular. It is a huge turnover though with new passengers everyday.

Another junk sails by

Sadly it was now time to checkout. We took our little overnight bags downstairs and handed them our room key. I asked the manager how long it would take to sail on the Violet to the China border. He said it would take about 8 hours. That sounds great but that is still a long way from Hong Kong.  Still wish we were not leaving today. 

The brunch selections were offered from a printed menu similar to the dinner last night. There were many choices. I had the pho soup with chicken and then some French Toast. You could also have pancakes, eggs and even a full English breakfast. 

The pho was good but I liked the one at the Rex hotel better. This was just supposed to be an appetizer portion though and not a full meal. I am trying to keep my cold from attacking me. I also had green tea and orange juice. 

Breakfast pho
We reluctantly boarded the tender to return to shore. I had not been paying attention and we were very close to shore by now.  You could swim there if you had to. 

I guess they missed a spot with the white paint. One of the crew is painting a column in the rear of the boat. 

We even got a wave goodbye! 

Waving goodbye
Lots of junks were also returning to shore to drop off customers and pickup new ones. 

The area around the pier is quite desolate. 

We are arriving at the Royal Pier. 

The Royal Pier dock is not large I don't even think there is a sign. 

Royal Pier Dock
The Violet manager and the woman who accompanied us on the tender to the boat and also on the row boat  are walking off the pier. 
The Violet manager and woman who met us yesterday
We thanked the manager again for a wonderful time. He then offered to walk with us up to the market. It was not necessary but it sounded like fun. 

Heading back toward the market and the dock for the Millennium
We will be taking a Celebrity tour at 12:30 pm today called Countryside & Shopping. We had some free time so the walk with the Violet manager worked out fine. He took some short cuts which we would not be aware of to get to the central market.

On the way there the manager told us about Qaddafi's son renting the Violet for himself and few other people. The Violet already had other guests booked but the Vietnamese government made them put the other guests on another boat so that Qaddafi and his entourage could sail for 2 or 3 nights. When he decided to stay longer they had to again displace more guests.

Getting close to the market
The clothing in this market was definitely for colder weather and a big difference from Saigon. 

Winter jackets
They had lots of "designer" labels on the clothing. However, I doubt they were real. 

I don't think these are Prada

The manager was looking for a suite jacket. He is slender and in good shape. The jackets were made so small! He tried on 3 or 4 and we tried to be helpful in making his selection. The one he liked was too tight and I think he asked for them to get him one in a larger size. 

We both advised against the blue one with the large collar. It was starting to feel like an episode of "What Not to Wear". We had to finally excuse ourselves since mother was getting worried about getting back to the dock and making it on time for our next tour. 

The manager showed us out and got us a taxi to take us back. He even paid for it! What service!

Leaving the market
We arrived back at the port in just a few minutes. Below is the bridge that spans the two separate parts of this area of the bay. Continuing north you would reach the Chinese border. The Millennium is not in the photo but it is located to the right. 

Back at the dock
We actually got back early and had to wait about 15 minutes for our tour. We had to dodge some of the aggressive hawkers selling pearls and postcards on the dock. There were about 5 or 6 ladies and they did not want to take "no" for an answer. I bought a set of postcards for $1 usd and they finally went away. 

There were two shore excursion people on the dock. We asked them which bus to take and they said #38. We walked up to find the bus (there was only one) and it said #37. It is so strange that the information you get from the ship never seems to be right, even for something so easy. 

We boarded the bus and as this tour is not a huge seller, there were lots of empty seats. We probably had about 35 people on the tour. 

The bus was gorgeous! I was really impressed. 

Gorgeous and comfy Bus 

The tour is described as Countryside and Shopping. It also includes a visit to the Yen Tu pagoda. The Yen Tu Pagoda was recently designated one of Vietnam's top spiritual destinations. It is located in northeastern Quang Ninh province and is a sacred Buddhist site. Many people will spend hours walking or climbing to the top. You can also get the top by taking a cable car. The Celebrity description does not mention taking a cable car so I wonder if it is just omitted or if we are not going there. 

The drive to Yen Tu is along the same two lane highway for part of the way that goes to Hanoi. 

Being in the countryside, the buildings and homes are little bigger as they have more land. 

Not long after we left the dock we were told we needed to stop for someone to use the restroom. The guide said it would be a 5 minute stop. However, the lady who requested the stop and 10 other people all got off the bus and did not return for a good 20 minutes. We finally started on our way again. 

About 20 minutes later we stopped again for another bathroom break. I couldn't believe it. No one seemed sick. If they had been I would have been more sympathetic. Another 15 minutes passes and this time almost everyone is off the bus. Finally after 10 more minutes and watching some of the passengers buy some some fruit we continued to the pagoda. 

There was lots of construction going on not far from the port. Perhaps they are dredging?

It is very misty at the mountain.

Drive up to the base of the mountain

We finally made it only to discover we were at the base of the Yen Tu mountain and were not going any further. In order to get to Yen Tu you need to take 2 separate chair lifts and walk about one hour to the top. The walking to the top may be the reason this tour doesn't go there.

However, a lot of people were asking where the monks were as we did not see any. I think they are further up the mountain.

Arriving at the base of the Yen Tu Mountain
Yen Tu Mountain & Pagoda

There is a Vietnamese saying that goes, "You may be charitable and lead a religious life for a hundred years, but if you haven't made it to Yen Tu, you haven't reached the highest religious bliss".

I actually was more interested in just seeing it rather than having a spiritual transformation. However, as we departed the bus I asked the guide about the cable car and he said it was 20 minutes from here. Obviously we are not going to see it.

Yen Tu is the Buddhist capital of Vietnam and is famous for its beautiful landscape, historic relics and ancient pagodas. The third emperor of the Tran dynasty, King Tran Nhan Tong (1258 - 1308), came to Yen Tu after his abdication and began a new life as a Buddhist monk. He dedicated his life to the Buddha - establishing temples, meditation centers and undertaking Zen missions.

King Tran was renowned for having led the country to victory over the Mongolians in two wars in 1285 and 1287. When the wars ended he devoted his time to caring for his people and developing the country. He paid special attention to improving agriculture and irrigation, allocating land to farmers, developing the economy, improving living standards, encouraging education and preserving culture. Sounds like he did it all!

With peace and progress achieved, the King decided to lead a religious life and in 1293 abdicated the throne to his son, Tran Thuyen.

Chua Dong Long Pagoda

We made our way up to the Chua Dong Long Pagoda. It was actually very pretty.

Chua Long Dong, is also called Chua Lan. This was once a large temple but today only a small building remains. Surrounding the temple are 25 stone and brick pagodas, the oldest and most beautiful is the Tich Quang Pagoda built in 1727.  The tomb stupa contains the remains of the renowned monk Chan Nguyen.

We walked around the assorted buildings. The guide did not provide any explanation so unless you knew about the pagoda before hand you were out of luck. 

The inside of the pagoda was quite striking with fruit offerings. 

I think this represents the circle of life

Perhaps a monk?
I think this may be one the living quarters

The inside of the temples was surprisingly nice. It took away the sting a little of not being able to go all the way to the top of Yen Tu. 

This is the garden with stupas. The surrounding buildings and hills made the scene quite dramatic. 
Stupa of Chan Nguyen
This placque was all in Vietnamese. I am sure it was important. The trees look very old. 

Here is a link of a youtube video to the Yen Tu pagoda. It is about 10 minutes long but shows you what the visit is really about.  They take both chair lifts and also hike up to the top. 

We enjoyed the partial visit to the pagoda and now it was time for the next stop of the tour which was a visit to a farm. 

The drive to the farm was only about 10 minutes. 

Arriving at "the farm"
However, when we arrived, it was certainly not what we had expected. There was no farm. It was a ramshackle house. 

Nice lady, child and even her dog

The nice couple who live there obviously get compensated by having us visit. It felt very intrusive to be looking at their living room and bedroom. I took these photos to show to the Shore Excursion staff when I returned. 

The shutter doors are very pretty but the room is depressing
These are photos on the living room wall.

And this is the bedroom. Makes you thankful and appreciate what you have. 

The bedroom looked more like a cell
I don't understand why we stopped here. I think the guy arriving on his bicycle seems surprised to see us as well!

I bet he didn't know his wife invited a few people over!

We did not eat or drink anything there. No offense to the nice people but I did not think it was advisable. Why Celebrity thought we would enjoy this I have no idea. It was embarrassing. 

Is this the farm?
We stood out front until the rest of the group was ready to go back to the bus. This is the local "neighborhood" near the "farm". 

We went back to the bus and departed for what was supposed to be a shopping stop but the guide decided we would not like it and said we would skip it. We drove back through the countryside which was looking sort of gloomy. 

It started to get greener as we got closer to the port. 

Just when we thought it could not get anymore bizarre, our bus which had sprung a gas leak on the way to the  Yen Tu Pagoda had to back out over the railroad tracks into oncoming traffic. This was to minimize any further damage. Most of the people on the bus had no idea why the driver was doing this. They had some wood pieces to make a ramp. 

Photo I took earlier of the gas leak

The bus driver backed us out into the oncoming traffic. It was a little scary!
Backing out due to our gas leak
We also straddled the train tracks for a while until we made it to the street. The entire operation required two people outside the bus, one to stop traffic and another to guide the driver. They did a good job though! 

We were supposed to not only have a shopping stop (the name of the tour is "Countryside and Shopping") but we are also supposed to get a drink at a local hotel.  About 25 minutes from the port we stopped again for yes, another bathroom break. This tour needs to be renamed "The Bathroom Tour". Now I wish I had gotten out at the other two bathroom stops to take photos. This time I did get off and use the nice western facilities.  This tour was becoming ridiculous! 

It was now getting dark and the guide announced we would not stop for a drink or shopping as we ran out of time. We asked him to drop us at the Night Market and said we would walk back to the dock on our own. He seemed sort of hesitant to let us do this as he knew the tour was a bit of a disaster. 

Thankfully we left the tour and the bus at the night market. The market was very quiet and there were no people including very few salespeople. We were not that interested in shopping but just wanted to see what they had. 

Night Market
Shells for sale

We looked around for about 5 minutes and then continued to the dock. My mother was a little nervous walking in the dark but there were lots of other people going the same direction. 

We made it back! Just as we were approaching the dock all the lights went out! We thought perhaps they were closing down? A few minutes later they went back on. The last tender to the ship will depart at 9:30 pm.  It is only about 7:30 pm so we have lots of time. We had about a 20 minute wait for the tender and then we sat there as they waited for more people. 

View of the Millennium from the Halong Bay dock
We finally departed and arrived back onboard. We dropped our bags in our room and then went straight to Blu for dinner. We were tired so I didn't care what dinner was at this point. 

Mother had a beef starter which she said was just average. 

Beef appetizer
I ordered the clam chowder but it in no way resembled that. It was actually a loaded baked potato soup! It even had bacon. 

Chowder that was really a loaded baked potato soup
For my main I decided to try the risotto and thankfully there was no dark sauce this time. I ate about half of it as it was sort of heavy. 


I had the sorbet for dessert. 


We had a very interesting couple sitting next to us in Blu. They are from Philadelphia and went on the Celebrity overnight trip to Angkor Wat near the start of the cruise. Apparently it was a disaster to get there since almost everyone in the group (40 people) had the wrong arrival date stamp in their passports. These were provided by the Thai Authorities in Laem Chabang. There was no one from Celebrity accompanying them on the trip. When they arrived at the Bangkok airport, they were not permitted to board the plane due to the problem with the arrival stamps and had to figure it all out on their own. After over 3 hours of tense waiting, some tears and trying in vain to call someone at Celebrity, the authorities re-stamped their passports and they were on their way. The price of this tour is about $1600 per person. They said it was horrible experience. The good news was that they were met on the Cambodian side by a great guide and the rest of the tour was fabulous.

We found this all very fascinating but also unfortunate that Celebrity really dropped the ball on this one big time. I wasn't feeling so sad anymore about missing the chair lift and walk up to the Yen Tu pagoda. It could have been worse!

After dinner we considered going to the theater to see "Mario D'Andrea & Friends" but decided to pass and just go to bed.

Tomorrow we have as sea day and then the next day we will arrive in Hong Kong.


  1. At this point, I would have started a revolution & demanded a refund on tours & part of this disastrous cruise. They obviously do not have experience & contacts in this part of the world to put together a reliable cruise package.

    You're right, they should be embarrassed. I might trust Celebrity to offer me a decent Caribbean cruise experience; but wouldn't dare entrust them with more than 7 days to screw up my precious vacation time.

  2. Becky,

    I agree! The second part of the day was so frustrating. This was the worst tour I have ever been on. The cruise also was not going so well except when we were doing our own thing off the ship. Celebrity was a huge disappointment with their poor planning and being so unprofessional. This was our 6th Celebrity cruise but it will be a long time before we cruise with them again, if at all. The fact that they were sailing for the first time in Asia was not a good excuse.