Cruising Halong Bay, Vietnam

I’ve always sworn off vacationing on a boat. It has more to do with not being able to get off it when I want to, the risk of uncontrolled sea sickness of which I can be prone to, and the feeling of being trapped on a floating vessel, in a small cabin. But on Sunday January 31, 2016, I found myself on the Royal Palace with the tour company Halong Bay Cruises No Limit Group for an overnight trip on Halong Bay.

Halong Bay, located in north east Vietnam, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, occupying an area of 1,533 square kilometres and 1,960 to 2000 islets, most of which are limestone, created over a period of 500 million years.

To reach Halong Bay from Hanoi, the mini bus journey took three and a half hours. But it was worth it, especially getting a glimpse of Vietnamese life  in the towns and rural villages outside of Hanoi city.

On arrival at the port, it’s a busy scene, even for the end of January, with people waiting to embark their vessel, and those waiting to leave. But the transition onto our boat, the Royal Palace was quick, and I found myself excited at this first time experience ahead. 

In spite of my need to reenact certain scenes from  James Cameron’s movie, Titanic, while on board with a fellow passenger (I’m flying Jack” photo moment taken) I hate to admit that I thoroughly enjoyed my cruise experience, with one night more than enough to not only see Halong Bay, but to live life on a boat! Here are my top five moments on board;

My cabin

Having stayed in three different hotels in the one week I spent in Hanoi, my cabin on board was my favourite of all the rooms. I loved the wood pannelling, the cute and small bathroom which was adequate in size, my double bed with rose petals scattered, but most of all, the two windows that revealed the beauty of Halong Bay. I was so warm and cosy in bed, I could have stayed there all day watching the limestone karsts and isles of varying shaped and sizes drift past my window.

  
Hang Sung Sot – Cave of Surprises

There were other tour boats and groups when we arrived at Hang Sung Sot and a lot of steps up into the first cave, but the trek is well worth the effort. The views of the bay from two look out points are great photo opportunity moments, and the second and last cave is very grande and impressive indeed with some unusual rock formations.

  
Kayaking on the Bay

I love kayaking, and a paddle on Halong Bay was part of my overnight cruise package. So after our cave hike, we were on the water in double kayaks with forty minutes to explore the area we anchored at. Passing under a limestone karst, we entered a smaller bay surrounded by more more towering limestone. It was so incredibly peaceful,  until I challenged two other kayaks to a quick race across the bay.  

 
Eating like kings and queens

The food we were ate was amazing! On arrival, and after a briefing, we were served a 5 course lunch while the boat journeyed into Halong Bay. Dinner also consisted of 5 courses with the food so beautifully presented, it was worthy of any top class restaurant. And as a vegetarian, was well catered to.

Playing dress up

On the first night, we were given an opportunity to wear Vietnamese traditional clothing, which was loads of fun! With the King traditionally dressed in yellow, me and my friendly fellow passengers had some great laughs as we posed in our colourful gowns.  

 
Tai Chi  morning session to get the day started

As much as I wanted to lie in bed all morning, I dragged my well rested self up to the top deck for a tai chi class. I’ve never done tai chi before, but my first ever class was one to remember, with limestone karsts to inspire me.

  
We also visited a pearl farm on the bay to learn how pearls are made. This is an interesting experience if you are into pearls, but as they have never appealed to me,  I was somewhat horrified by the entire process of how they are created. I can only liken the experience to some form of oyster alien abduction of which an appropriate blog piece is due to follow. And the short cooking class was fun as well!

The staff on board our boat were great, and our host and tour leader Daniel was friendly, helpful and informative. It’s a definitely a tour company I’d recommend for your visit to Halong Bay. 

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Cambodian Temples with David Angkor Tour

Celebrating a major milestone birthday at the  end of January, 2016 had to be a memorable one, so I booked a two day private tour with David Angkor Tour company in Siem Reap, with Mr Sophat as my private guide and Mr Kenny my driver. 

Over the course of two days, I explored 11 different temples within Angkor Archaeological Park with a three day visit pass for $40 USD. 

The first day began with sunrise at Angkor Wat, with a 5am pick up at my fantastic accommodation Billina Boutique Hotel. Sunrise is stunning (see my sunrise blog post Here ) but do bring a warm jacket as you will be standing outside for 60-90 minutes and it was cold at the end of January.

Mr Sophat knew the perfect place to watch sunrise, with a clear view of Angkor Wat temples from across the moat, away from most of the tourists. The other temples I explored on Day 1 included Ta Prohm, Takeo, Angkor Thom and Bayon, with a return back to Angkor at noon when most of the crowds had dissipated. Day 2 temples included Pre Up, Mebon, Tasom, NeakPean, Preah Khan and Banteay Srei. Below is a list of my favourite six temples;

Ta Prohm

This was the first temple I asked Mr Sophat and Mr Kenny to take me to after sunrise at Angkor Wat. It’s quite  small with a designated route to walk through to control the crowds, so seeing this Ta Prohm first with as little tourists as possible was a priority. 

Arriving just after it opened at 07.30am, I fell in love with this temple. Ta Prohm featured in the  Angelina Jolie movie Tombraider and it’s definitely my favourite amongst the 11 I saw across two days. I just loved the remoteness of its location, set amongst the towering trees that have become part of the ancient walls.

 
Preah Khan

I saw this Preah Khan on day 2. I’m definitely into temples overgrown with trees! This temple reminded me of Ta Promh but on a much larger scale. The tree that had overgrown the front wall is so enormous and magnificent, it’s as if she is the ancient guardian of the temple.

 

Tasom

This is a Buddhist temple that we visited on day 2. Again set amongst forest, the trees had also overgrown part of the structures. I loved some of the low lying walls that forced me to crouch and stoop at times to pass through.
  
Bayon

This temple was supposed to be our first stop after sunrise at Angkor but I wanted to prioritise Ta Promh. Bayon does get very busy with people hence why it was supposed to be our first visit. By the time we arrived, it certainly was full with other tour groups so patience is needed when exploring within. There are some great Buddhist statues hidden inside, but what is most impressive are all the carved Buddhist faces. The arrival of some Buddhist monks made the whole experience even more surreal, especially with their orange robes contrasting against the  grey walls of Bayon.

  
Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is a Sanskrit word that means holy city. Built originally as one of the greatest monuments to Hinduism, it was converted to a Buddhist monastery post Angkorian (14-18th centuries). It stands as a replica of the universe in stone, representing an earthly model of the cosmic world. The main tower in the middle of the monument symbolises the mythical Mount Meru, the centre of the universe. The five towers around the central one correspond to the five peaks of Mount Meru.The outer gallery of monuments represents mountains at the edge of the world, with the the surrounding moats representing the oceans beyond.

Angkor Wat has always been a bucket list destination. And to explore it on a milestone birthday is very special indeed!

 
Banteay Srei

This was the last temple I saw on day 2. The smallest of all the temples in terms of the size of the structures, Mr Sophat brought me here at the right time of the day, with the least amount of tourists and when the sun cast a perfect colour on the sandstone walls. Banteay Srei translates to woman temple, and with its delicate and precise carvings and small size, it definitely had a female energy to it. 

I would highly recommend a two day private tour with David Angkor Tours. Mr Sophat is a walking encyclopaedia of information about Angkor and all the temples. He knows how to avoid the crowds, the best places to take photos and is happy to take your photo as well.

Thank you Mr Sophat and Mr Kenny for a memorable milestone birthday and two days exploring the temples of Angkor Archaeological Park. 

 

For more information, please contact David Angkor Tours

And for a great place to stay while in Siem Reap, check out Billina Boutique Hotel