Leaving the hustle and bustle of Hanoi in our minibus 'limousine', we were looking forward to seeing the lush Vietnamese landscape along the way. However, during the 4 hour trip we seemed to be on a Vietnamese high street for most of the journey, with shop after shop selling everything from 'Pho'. A local noodle soup (pronounced 'f' phonetically) to fake sports clothes, washing machines and cars. We passed a couple of rice fields and a few water buffalo being herded along the road, but all in all it was pretty unspectacular!
The booming tourist industry has not been kind to Ha Long Bay City, and many high rise hotels, theme parks and the shipping industry mean that an overnight stay on a boat is by far the best option. We were pleased to be met by Vinh, who would be our boats manager for the trip and soon took us aboard a tender to take us on our 'Signature Cruise'.
After a welcome drink and a safety briefing (this is one area that has been improved dramatically in Ha Long Bay after many boat fires and accidents without life jackets), we went to find our cabins. We could only say 'wow'! We had a twin and double interconnecting suite, both with en-suite bathrooms and spa baths. A step up from the quad bunk on Doubtful Sound although we did all agree that you lose a bit of the social aspect as people hang out in their rooms rather than the communal areas.
After a delicious 3 course lunch and a cruise into Ha Long Bay proper, we could fully appreciate the wonder of the bay and why it is now designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Over 700 islands emerge from the ocean over an area of 1000km, and legend has it that they were placed in the bay by a dragon to stop enemy boats coming into Vietnam!
After soaking up the scenery from the top deck for a while, we boarded the tender to be taken to a floating fishing village.
We were taken around the village by a local lady, who was tiny and only 21, but with amazing technique paddled us around with ease.
The floating fish farms were so interesting to see, with simple homes in the centre and a dog on guard to bark at boats getting too close.
The tour ended at an oyster farm after we sailed under a tunnel rock, and seeing how oysters are made was new to us all.
They showed us how they open the shell and put a bead into the membrane before returning the oyster to the sea water for a period of time, depending on how big they want the pearl to be.
They then opened an oyster that had been in the sea for up to 3 years and we saw the pearl pop out.
Fascinating! The way out was of course through a beautiful jewellery shop.
Back on the boat, we luxuriated in our baths and dressed for dinner. Pre-dinner drinks were accompanied by a cookery demonstration, where Sophia and Jake enjoyed making spring rolls which we sampled with our Gin and tonics and mocktails.
After dinner, we attempted squid fishing by night, under powerful spotlights to attract our 8 limbed prey.
A lot of fun - but I think we had more chance of catching Spongebob than Squidney...!
Half an hour later, we were ready for our comfy beds, which we slept in soundly.
The following day started early at 6am, with Tai Chi on the deck with Vinh! Jake and Sophia joined in and embarrassed the adults with their flexibity and Jake particularly enjoyed the end when Vinh showed us how Tai Chi is used as a form of self defence as well.
We then had a light breakfast before heading off on the tenders to explore some unbelievable caves. These caves were only discovered in 2007, when a few families were discovered living in them. The official story was that these families were given houses in the floating village in exchange for the caves.
Although cavernous and spectacular inside, they are now over-run with tourists and even at 8am it was hard to get in and out of them due to the steady stream of visiting groups.
There was a pretty beach once we were back outside and we enjoyed feeling the sand between our toes again.
Back on board it was time to pack up our cabin before being fed again with brunch, and sailing back into port.
We had a fabulous time on the boat, and the 4 hour trip back wasn't so bad, as we slept some of the way and watched a series called 'Magic' which we've downloaded and all enjoyed in times of entertainment need on the road!
Back to the hustle and bustle of Hanoi and we had a front facing suite at The Essence Palace for our final night. The staff were unbelievably helpful throughout our stay and we loved staying in the old quarter at a hotel with a more personal touch.
We stretched our legs with a walk around Hoan Kiem lake, which is beautifully lit up at night and had dinner at Cau Go which was an exceptional Vietnamese restaurant overlooking the city and lake.
To Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) today and we've managed to squeeze travel schooling in on the cruise and the plane!
The children are looking like the professional travellers they have become. I think this was our 15th flight!