Our Campervan Shakeout trip

Since we cant keep travelling overseas, we are going to explore our own province and country – and about time too!

I’m checking out a new travel app called Polarsteps and so far I LOVE IT!

Super easy to use while on the go. Makes a note of when you arrived where and has great off line capabilities. I think this will be my go-to for future trips.

Follow me on my trip ‘Campervan Shakeout

Koh Rong Samloem

For our last stop in Cambodia, we chose this smaller, quieter option accessible from nearby Sihanoukville. We had to cover 95 km by bus, and then a boat ride. We bought a package that included both legs, plus return boat for US$26 each. The company is called Kep Travel and Tours. Don’t use them! Terrible.

There were a lot of bad reviews on line, for Kampot Travel and Tours. So many, that I theorize they simply changed their name to Kep, but made no improvement in service.

We were picked up by a van and driven into town, to a grubby office. Other travellers arrived by tuk tuk, bus and on foot, then we were regrouped by destination, with most of us getting on a bus that looked much nicer and cleaner on the outside, than inside.

The bus was full of mosquitoes, which was really peculiar because there were none outside. Maybe it had been parked overnight in a swampy area with the windows open?

Once the bus was full, they unfolded another full row of jump seats down the aisle, and packed in more people. And then we went off on a long slow ride.

Sihanoukville looks like a warzone. The Chinese belt-and-road initiative has resulted in the entire town being dug up at once (roads, sewers, apartment towers.) Cambodia’s laws prevent citizens from gambling, but more than 100 casinos have been built there for Chinese visitors. China then said they would cease their billion dollar investments unless Cambodia stopped on-line casinos. Stunned casino operators, and 120,000 Chinese promptly up and left. Its a riveting story. And a horrible mess.

Piles of garbage at the beach in Sihanoukville.

Now many projects are abandoned. What is left is chaos. It took well over an hour to navigate our way through town to the ferry, But it was sure an interesting ride. Can’t really describe it adequately, but these pictures are what the entire town looks like. They are not selective.

Endless half built construction.
Projects abandoned everywhere.

The speed ferry was basic, the water was choppy, and of course, our stop at Saracen beach was the last of 3. In the end, the whole journey took almost 6 hours. We were happy to arrive, and since there had not been a moment to eat along the way, we immediately fell upon some snacks and a few cold beer. Eventually, our resort sent a skiff to pick us up and take us to our accommodation in a pipe.

We slept in one of these beachfront pipes. Very comfortable.
A hugely popular instagram spot. We enjoyed watching the photo shoots.

We really enjoyed our three nights there. We did a few walks, including to the other side of the island, where we met more monkeys.

We also napped, and swam in the lovely blue water – the sea monkeys (jellyfish larvae) got me again!

Sea Monkey stings.

And we enjoyed some amazing meals on the beach front.

It was a nice way to wrap up our travels, and prepare for our final stop in Bangkok. But as we read the news on-line, we could see that the coronavirus was spreading faster, and it was time to get home. If we hadn’t had a return date looming, we would have been buying tickets home a this point.

Team Kep or Team Kampot?

While planning our trip, I noticed a strong trend in blogs and reviews about the Cambodian coast: Those that like Kampot, didn’t see much to admire about Kep, and vice versa. Kep had a national park to hike in, and Kampot had a river for swimming, SUPs and kayaking. They both sounded good to me.

But I won’t keep you guessing. We are firmly on team Kep.

We had a very agreeable place to stay in Kep, called Q bungalows. It was beautifully landscaped, had a charming bar restaurant and the pool was one of the nicest I’ve encountered. Beautifully clean and the perfect temperature.

Beautiful landscaping at Q bungalows.
Aircon bungalow US$40/night…
With breakfast included!

Loved the pool at Q bungalows. National park in the background.

I was worried we were out of town, but am now persuaded that the area we were in is by far the best to stay in. From what little I saw of the town, there was no true centre.

But we were about 400m from the National Park, 800m from the Crab market (which is a daily market with more than seafood) and a string of good value seafood restaurants perched over the water right next to the crab market. Add in the sailing club and some other nice bars along the water, and you really have no need to leave the area.

Fresh seafood ready to grill to order.
A small part of the crab market

The national park is a nice half day outing but really more like a reserve than a park. The usual way to see it, is to walk around an approx 8 km loop. It is a dirt road, with lots of shady bits, some nice viewpoints, and monkeys! After about 5 km the trail spits you back onto a proper road. There is one wooden shelter outlook and a tiny little bar that was closed when we passed, but otherwise it is completely undeveloped. Cost is 2$ to enter. We enjoyed stretching our legs on this walk. I would say that the National Park is not sufficient reason to go to Kep, in truth.

Monkeys found us while walking the circuit of the national park.
A particularly fine tree in the national park.

We only stayed two nights. It was enough time to do this walk, enjoy the pool, go to the Crab market, eat at Kep Blue Mer- which was wonderful and so inexpensive- and enjoy sunset twice at the Sailing club. It was sufficient.

Very happy hours at the Sailing Club.

Then we took the Crab Shuttle to Kampot. It leaves at 3pm, and takes 3 hours to travel the 25 km you could more easily travel by road. It was unique and memorable, and just a bit longer than you would wish, with a stop at a Mangrove eco park.

The crab shuttle
The loo. Did not try it.
A stop at a mangrove preservation project.

You chug up the river as the sun is setting and the boat let’s you off right in front of RikiTikiTavi, a well known accommodation with a brilliant happy hour in a lovely roof deck bar.

Fishing boats heading out at sunset.
Sunset arrival on the Crab Shuttle.

This time our out-of-centre bungalow was just plain inconvenient as we had to tuk tuk everywhere. We spent a morning walking around and even shopping a bit (beer cozies, a mortar and pestle, a cool recycled bag). This town has the advantage of a small but well defined centre. Then, following multiple recommendations, we took a tuk tuk to The Green House, a restaurant and bungalows several km upstream where one can have a good meal and swim in the river.

Stay too far out of town and you use these alot.
Cold drinks and lunch, but no swim at the Green House.

Well, the meal was very good, though pricier than expected. But as for swimming in the river, it was not inviting. Didn’t see any SUPS or kayaks. Did see a diaper float by. That was it for me.

We began our second night in kampot with more excellent 2 for 1 cocktails at Rikitikitavi. We met a young couple from the US, had a good conversation, and ended up by having dinner and more drinks with them. Afterwards, we strolled the town again, without finding it particularly beckoning, visited the durian roundabout one last time, and we were ready to move on.

Two for one sunset cocktails at RikiTikiTavi. Sigh.
The durian roundabout, central to Kampot’s identity.

Phu Quoc Vietnam to Kep, Cambodia: Forgotten Passports, High Seas, a Fire, and an Attack by Sea Monkeys.

So not every travel day is a great day. Don’t believe what those Insta-Influencers are trying to sell ya. Sometimes things go wrong. Sometimes they go quite wrong. So you need to be prepared for a setback or two.

We always keep the passports in a specific manner, and we run a check (wallets, passports, phones, sunglasses) and a bag count whenever we change locations.

When we left our bungalow in Phu Quoc, two factors distracted us. Firstly, we had saved up literally MILLIONS of Vietnamese dong to pay our bill, and they informed us at the desk that the payment had already been taken by credit card. Most unexpected. What will we do with MILLIONS of dong in Cambodia? O well.

Then, the vehicle booked to take us to the ferry at 8:30 arrived at 8:10 or thereabouts, making us scramble a bit. Never scramble!

Our ferry to Ha Tien, Vietnam, 10 km from the Cambodian border, left at 9:30. The seas were very rough on the windward side of the island. Just getting on board was an adventure. Rand gets seasick, and I was feeling guilty about making him ride a ferry, as he quickly turned gray and clammy.

The ferry. A rough ride in an enclosed space, shared with a load of durian.

I closed my eyes, tried to relax, and Bam! I remembered that when we checked into our resort in Phu Quoc, the reception clerk insisted on keeping our passports in the hotel safe during our stay. This was unusual.

“Did they give us back our passports this morning? Do you have them?” The look on Rand’s face told me they had not. Sh…..oot!

I whipped off an email to the resort, asking them to confirm they still had our passports. I asked them to send someone to the ferry port and hand them over to the captain of the next departing ferry. We would then meet that ferry and collect the documents in person.

But the fact they had not handed them back raised the question, did they even have them? Quickly, the answer, with apologies, was that they did.

After that, I was not very worried. Everything in Vietnam has been so easy, every little problem fixed or sorted. The Vietnamese are natural born fixers. I just knew it would work out.

We had already hired a fixer to take us to the border, and the resort connected with him seamlessly, and hired him to be THEIR fixer. He walked us over to a cafe where we waited 3 and a bit hours.

Hanging out in a port cafe, waiting for our passports.

He met the ferry, got the documents, then completed his task and got us through the border, where we connected with a local who drove us to our prebooked accomodation in Kep.

Leaving Vietnam on foot.
Entering Cambodia

Well that had been a much longer trip than anticipated. But it was over. We had arrived! Alls well, etc, etc.

We piled out at our guesthouse, and noticed a strong acrid smell. The field next to our bungalow, had recently been in flames. Ash covered everything. The power and internet lines had burnt. There was no food to be had, no air con or light in the bungalows, and the smoke in the air reached right down my throat so I could scarcely breath.

Fields still smoking at Blue Kep Bungalows.
Our kind, but dismayed hosts. No electricity, no communications, and shortly thereafter, no Randoneurds.

Luckily, our hosts did not disagree with our desire to find a different place to stay. So we set off in a tuk-tuk (because no internet) to look about. That is how we came, eventually, to Q bungalows. Now, in truth, we could relax.

Fleeing smoky bungalows in a tuk-tuk.

We had an icy beer, and showered the grime and smoke out of our hair and that is when I learned why I had been itchy all day. Turns out it wasn’t only dirt, perspiration and heat. I had a number of itchy red bumps on my torso. Heat rash? Mozzies? Weird.

The Q Bungalows bar had tragically run out of tequila, which qualifies as another catastrophe, only because it happened to be International Margarita Day!

So we wandered off for happy hour at the Sailing Club, which was lovely, and then, just before bed, enjoyed a swim in the pool. Day turned out okay. All mischief managed.

It was a squeaker, but I did manage to celebrate International Margarita Day at the Kep Sailing Club.
The sailing club is the place to go for 3 dollar happy hour, beautiful sunsets and inauthentic but very tasty Poutine.

Only the next morning, the dozen or so bites had turned into 49 – yes I counted! 5 minutes of research and it was clear I had been accosted by jellyfish larvae in Phu Quoc. Worse, the little buggers live on in wet bathing suits, so I’d likely got a second round of stings when I put my damp suit on for a pool swim in Kep. I soaked my suit in kettle boiled water that very moment and laid it out, all day, in the 35°C sun.

So that was quite a few setbacks to deal with in one day. But it isn’t a day we are likely to forget soon, and sometimes it just goes like that.

Phu Quoc Rest Stop

We went to Phu Quoc (FOO WALK), an island in Vietnam’s far south, because there were good value direct flights there from Danang.

This was a way to reposition to the south of Vietnam without visiting Ho Chi Minh.

Can Tho in the Mekong Delta was also an option, but would leave us a considerable distance from our next destination: Kep in Cambodia.

The reviews for this island were mixed. Either the beaches were beautiful or they were disgusting; it was paradise or it was ruined. Better go see for ourselves.

We arrived in the evening to spend 3 nights and two days. I chose a resort close to, but, I hoped, not too close to the main town. In this case, a visit to Google earth during the planning stages would have been smart, as the surrounding area was much more built up than I liked. Even with coronavirus fears shrinking the crowds, our area was too developed and full of people.

Orange resort, Phu Quoc

Our resort, however, was very nice, so we just hung out there and had a proper rest up and brown up. Watched sunsets, napped, read. The sea was very warm and clean, with no waves, so it was quite a nice break. And that is all I have to say about Phu Quoc, as we really saw none of it.

O, we did walk to the famed night market. It was crowded and so full of dead fish and other sea creatures that one wonders how there can be anything left in the oceans. We had a beer there.

Coconut ice cream. Recommended!

I also had some yummy coconut ice cream in a shell, and Rand had a Banana Roti, plus an unsatisfying piece of fried chicken (batter and bones.) Then we went back to our resort to swim, nap, read…

Our charming poolside bungalow. Good value for 5 million dong for 3 nights, with breakfast.
I could go back to this beach today
For a swim…
And a sundowner or two.

6 Nights in Hoi An

The nights were actually spent in An Bang beach. We decided to live at the beach and visit the town and we have no regrets. It is only a 80 – 100 thousand dong ride into the old town in a metered taxi (CDN$5)

We stayed the first 3 nights at Red Flower cottages, and then moved 1 km down the beach to stay at KA Villa. I did it this way because I knew it would be hot in Central Vietnam and I had read many recent blog posts, and reviews that said the beaches and ocean were dirty and full of garbage at An Bang.

But others said the beach was nice. So for the first 3 nights we stayed right at the beach at the place that appealed the most, and the second three at a place with a nice pool, just in case.

We loved Red Flower Cottages! Very comfortable room with covered patio and a day bed outside. We would stay again. Lovely staff, and the beach and water were clean (although the dunes behind the beach certainly were not.)

Red Flower Cottages

We were a bit unlucky in that of our three days there, one was fine weather, one was crazy windy, so no beach, and one was windy and rainy! But that first day was very nice at the beach.

A great day at An Bang beach before the weather changed.

Our second accomodation gets equally high marks for the kindness of the staff, and we did enjoy the pool, but the room was frustratingly small, and the neighbourhood inferior. The most charm and best restaurants were in the vicinity of Red Flower, and we found ourselves walking back there several times after relocating. It is not a nice walk, either.

Rand in the pool at KA Villas

We did all the usual things in Hoi An: walked around, ate too much, admired the lights, went to the night market and shopped.

Night market

Rand had a shirt made in 24 hours and it was perfect. So we jumped in and ordered another one for him, two long sleeve and one sleeveless for me, and a shirt for each of our adult sons, based on measurements they emailed to us.

We both took a favourite fitting shirt in and left it with the tailor to make it reasonably easy. And measurements were also taken.

In the end, I had to make three trips into Hoi An, to get my three shirts finished, and the results weren’t perfect as they were for Rand.

My sleeveless shirt was not even close to fitting on my first fitting. It had to be completely remade. It fit fine at my second and last fitting, but the pattern on the fabric was cut wrong: on the front, the bird pattern is upside down! I pointed this out and the tailor obviously knew this, as she quickly said, “No, the birds go in all directions.”

All the birds on the shirt front – except pocket! – are hanging dead from their branches! Sewing 101 layout error.
Happily, the birds are alive on back of shirt.

Anyway, it was my last day, and I accepted the shirt, because I’m a bit off kilter as well. Certainly, I can go thru the world knowing no one has a shirt just like this. I will think of Hoi An when I wear it, of course.

FYI, a custom made tailored shirt, short or long sleeve, is about CDN$28 at the reputable (but apparently rushing) tailor we engaged.

A better deal still is jewellery in Hoi An. I read a blog post about a shop that would make anything, silver or gold, overnight and by weight. So I scooted right down to Lac Viet, hoping they could forge a very famous brand of silver bracelet that I have coveted but for which I would NOT spend $1800.

I’m pleased with the result and thrilled with the price – US$129!

The amazing jewellery shop and also the card for a Greek restaurant we liked so much we went twice!

I also bought a gift for a special friend, and some other smaller silver pieces for gifts.

More pictures of Hoi An:

Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

We had to take malaria tablets to go to this area, but it was so worth it.

The town where you base yourself to explore here is called Son Trach, but travellers often refer to it as Phong Nha town.

We stayed at a very good value homestay called Vu’s. Best banana pancakes of my life. A family so kind that when they saw you put on your bathing suit, they jumped up and skimmed the pool.

Banana Pancakes

Having had some sleep on the train, we were ready for some adventure right off the bat. We had to hang around for a few hours to get our room, get changed and ready to go, then we grabbed bikes from the homestay- once again, reviews said they were free, but we were made to pay a few dollars rent – and away we went to Bong Lai Valley.

There are two ways there, along the highway shoulder (9 km) or along the river (11 km). We did the highway out (someone else’s idea) and the river road back (my idea.) Trust me, take the longer river route. It is so much more pleasant that you won’t notice the extra distance. And its flat!

Also, along the way is the Bomb Crater bar. Rustic in the extreme! Buy an icy beer from a couple of women trying to make a living, relax in a hammock while you drink it, then be sure to buy a beer cozy as a souvenir.

The first attraction at Bong Lai valley that you come to rather quickly is a hobby farm of sorts. It was very popular with Vietnamese, but looked quite artificial, and we cycled on to the highly touted Duck Stop.

We had read that the owner just loves to share his rural life as a duck farmer with visitors. Once perhaps, but not anymore. This was the only real tourist trap we stumbled into in our time in Vietnam.

Immediately upon arrival – as in, before we had activated our kickstands – we were set upon by a child who insisted we go sit in the restaurant, tried to force us to sample salt and pepper pinched up in their fingers, then offered a multi lingual menu of packages: for this much you have a drink and a pancake, see the ducks and learn about the pepper tree. If you take package 2 you also get to have your picture taken on a water buffalo.

We ordered a beer only because we were thirsty from our ride, and quickly decided against getting pushed into more.

But the pint sized salespeople sit beside you and ask you where you are from and basically chase you out or into acquiescence. We did get some value from watching the scheme play itself out over and over as each new group of visitors arrived. While the price for these packages was only about 5$, we share an aversion to being hustled.

One km further on we found a much chiller welcome at The Pub with Cold Beer. We had lunch, cold beer, a rest in the hammocks. We did not kill a chicken. It was nice.

After a big lunch at the Pub with Cold Beer.

That evening we discovered Momma D’s. Run by a Canadian named Denise, this place is on a sixth floor rooftop, and a great place to have happy hour and watch the day fade away. Luckily, just a block from our homestay, so went back our second night again.

Momma D’s Rooftop Lounge

So how to see the park? Lots of all day caving and trekking packages available, most in the range of 1.5 million dong (US$ 65) and 8 hours long.

Riding a motorcycle around would be the fun way, but Rand lacks recent experience and I lack courage. Our solution was to rent two Easy Riders.

For 400,000 dong per person you get a motorcycle and driver for 6 hours. You ride pillion, and they take you where you want to go. They are not tour guides, just drivers and they will wait while you explore.

Easy rider.
Bikes on a small boat
Nice way to tour the park.

We started with a 25 km drive to Paradise Cave. We got there early and walked the 1 km to get to the paved switchback trail, then probably another 1 km up the switchbacks. You can get water along the way.

This cave blew us away. Keep in mind we saw caves in Ha Long Bay and around Ninh Binh. So, do we need to see this cave? O yes!

Amazing place. Huge, beautiful, stunning actually. So glad we went, and went early as large tour groups were arriving as we exited.

We saw a lot of the park, and then asked our drivers to take us to the Botanical gardens, which we had heard were not gardens so much as jungle. This was an unlucky stop, firstly because the trails were slippery and overgrown, but more importantly because Rand’s camera sacrificed itself to save his hip in a fall. It was 6 years old and he doesn’t seem too cut up about the prospect of an upgrade, still… and he scraped his arm. We have a tube of polysporin along and have had at least half a dozen incidents that profited. Would never travel in a tropical or remote location without it!

Better to bust a camera than a bone.

Had dinner with Brenda and Richard at Bamboo, also in our neighbourhood. Food was good, but the Penis Banana dessert was, well, memorable.

Night train and taxi to Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

We have only taken a sleeper train once before, from Vienna to Rome. On that occasion, we were split into male and female triple rooms and each had one delightful roommate and one very strange one.

Undeterred, we decided to try it again in Vietnam.We watched YouTube videos about the Laman Express VIP service and were prepared for horrible toilets, constant announcements and no sleep – but at least we could stretch out!

As frequently happened in Vietnam, when we asked our hotel to arrange a taxi to the train station for us, a reasonable sum was quoted and agreed to, it went directly on our room bill, and someone associated with the accomodation provided a private transfer. They dont miss any money making opportunities here.

Waiting for the night train.

The train came on time, we easily found our compartment, and there was a couple – likely German, already settled in. There was an array of snacks, water, a chillyish beer, and, presumably, fresh linen provided. So as not to disturb our roommates, we cleaned up a bit in the not-as-bad-as-anticipated bathroom, and went to bed.

The compartment was air conditioned, there were no announcements whatsoever, and though the train rumbled ALOT, there was no keeping me awake after everything we had done that day. I slept soundly from 11 until 4 am, then dozed a bit until we arrived at Dong Hoi at 6:15 am. Sadly, we took no pictures inside the train. It was literally and figuratively a blur.

By previous agreement, we would walk 15 minutes to the bus station where we would catch our bus connection to Phong Nha. Three quarters of the way there, we encountered a rail overpass with streaming traffic and no shoulders. It was a a Scooby Doo moment…Ruh Roh!

At that exact moment, we were signalled from a nearby taxi by some friendly and hopeful looking fellow travellers.

“Want to share this taxi direct to the park?” Yes, you bet we do!

And that is how we met Brenda and Richard from Regina, and got to Phong Nha quickly and mostly safely, and so on to the next adventure!

Two Days in Tam Coc

We managed to book a direct transfer from the port where our ship docked, to our accomodation in Tam Coc, which is a smaller town near to Ninh Binh. Did it all on-line. We were first of the passengers to get picked up, so had first choice of seats. And we left early, around noon! Maybe, we thought, we’d be in Tam Coc at about 3? “This is great,” we quietly crowed.

No such luck. The bus visited several other cruise and ferry terminals, and 2 hours later we could still see our starting point across the bay. Then the driver took two breaks during the rest of the drive, and according to maps.me, took the longest route. Maybe he had his reasons. You just have to surrender yourselves sometimes. I had to tell him, using Google translate,to stop using and looking at his phone while driving.

The Sunshine hotel was new and looked so modern, but it was terribly non functional. The bathroom light switch was metres away by the main room door, approximately where this picture was taken. For no good reason, there was a large window between bed and bathroom.

Just where you don’t want a picture window

The other, still larger window looked directly into the next suite. There was only about two minutes of hot water any time we tried. The bed felt like a box spring with no padding. And the entire lobby was open to the air, making it just as chilly in as out. Its probably delightful in summer.

One of the two staff members we regularly interacted with did not lift her eyes from her phone when answering a question. Even the breakfast was subpar.

Tam Coc on the other hand, was terrific. The main street reminded me of Khao San road 30 years ago: Laid back and budget traveller friendly.

We used the hotels rusty bikes both days. Guest reviews indicated they were free, but we were charged a few dollars a day for them. The first day, we rode to the bird park, where we climbed over 400 sweaty steps to the heaven and hell cave. Had it all to ourselves and it was pretty cool.

Heaven and hell cave.

Then we cycled, with a quick stop at the Mermaid cave, to the bird sanctuary area, where we could observe massive quantities of storks, and other birds.

Mermaid Cave

We had fried sweet potatoes and crispy fried corn for lunch, and the corn, especially, was a revelation.

Lightly coated with cornstarch and seasonings, then into a hot wok. Yum!

We ended our day with a visit to the three temples stacked one above the other at Bich Dong.

Bich dong temple detail.

Here, if you walk around the temple site and its lagoon to the right (through the pay-to-park area for bikes) you can ascend concrete steps and then descend into a very charming valley where goats roam, and the poor, tired looking guy that lives in a shack there might give you a cave tour for a dollar. Even if he doesn’t, give him 20,000 each for letting you crash his privacy. He clearly really needs it.

A beautiful hidden valley just behind the Bich Dong pagoda complex…
…with many goats.

We had dinner our first night in Tam Coc at Father Cooking restaurant. All the usual rice and noodle dishes. Very good, very, very cheap.

After our first day of exploring, we walked to the far side of town to eat at Chookies. It was fab. They have a chalkboard that says

“We understand that sometimes you just want to eat something that tastes like home”

Boy did they deliver. Pizza, from a wood fired oven. So good! Go there and hang out in the camp fire circle all evening. Its lovely.

Chookies is the place!

On our 2nd day we went in the other direction, first Hang Mua (salt cave, I think) which is billed as an eco park. There are swings, and flower displays, restaurants and bars. The cave itself is pretty uninteresting.

What everyone goes here for is to climb many steep, irregular steps to the top of two adjoining peaks. One has a massive dragon statue. This is an Insta-famous location, and there was one girl who had props and costumes and a fellow who must have taken hundreds of photos of her in cunning poses. There was also a bridal party and O they must have been hot after that climb!

Very hot and humid work.
Lower summit
From the summit.

After lunch we cycled on to Trang An for a boat tour through the caves. We were shocked by how (over) developed this area was. Though it wasn’t horribly busy during our visit, there were 1400 boats moored and awaiting tourist hordes. It would not be worthwhile, in my opinion, if operating at or anywhere near peak capacity.

Trang An temple.
Trang An cave.

Our boat fellow never rowed with his feet, though we saw some do this. It was truly beautiful scenery, slightly impaired by the two jerks we shared the boat with who were so restless they just giggled, made phone calls to their children, and even lit a cigarette – yeah, I shut that down fast! But how do you ask someone to not be an obnoxious personality. We were able to ignore them for the most part.

We got back to our hotel at around 6, cleaned up a bit in the lobby bathroom, and went for a third, pretty unremarkable dinner in the town. Should have ridden back to Chookies, but we had a sleeper train to catch!

UNESCO Ha Long Bay

Our plan was to go to Catba island for three nights, and book a day tour of one of the quieter areas of greater Ha Long Bay. Both Lan Ha and Bai Tu Long bays had been recommended as less crowded with boats.

When we asked our guest house to book the transfer to Cat Ba from Hanoi, they came back with the disturbing news that the ferries were cancelled for the next week. Being newly arrived and just waiting for someone to try to scam us (spoiler: absolutely no-one has tried to scam us in almost two weeks) we wondered how this could be.

We were pointed to an official website which said that the administrator of Catba had, that very day, closed the island to tourists from all 26 countries where Corona virus had been detected.  Luckily, our accomodation could be cancelled without penalty, so no hassle there. The host on Catba insisted he could get us to the island but we weren’t going to defy an official edict.

Another guest in our hotel suggested we go on a cruise, as there were deals to be had. She highly recommended the boat she had been on the previous week. We walked down to the office, and for USD $269 each,were offered a 5 star 2 night, 3 day cruise of Bai Tu Long Bay. This was a smoking deal. I had researched this option when planning our trip, so was able to recognize the discount. The sales office did not press it as a smoking deal, but did ask us not to share the price we paid with other passengers.

The cabin was large and luxurious to be sure.
Had a bath everyday with the windows wide open to the scenery

It turned out there were only 16 of us on a ship built to accommodate 48. Next morning we were bused to the port and found ourselves in an amazing stateroom, complete with soaker tub in front of fold back windows. That same day, the administrator of Catba reconsidered his edict and withdrew it. Pretty weird how small twists of fate send you in a different direction.

For the next three days we kayaked, learned to make spring rolls, squid fished (not me!) And went ashore for a barbecue.

Kayaks were just being replaced, because these were thrashed
But it was fun to get out on the water.

Though the weather wasn’t great – cool and misty – the scenery was spectacular, the food was usually good and always interesting, and we felt like we had really landed in the ducky! (Obscure Veggietales reference.)

Amazing scenery
Lots of seafood, if you are a fan.

So if you are wondering, we were on one of two Dragon Legend sister ships operated by Indochina Junk.

While there are lots of true 5 and even 6 star experiences available in SE Asia, five star in this case is more like a 3 star. The rooms were luxurious and comfortable and clean.

There was; however, much evidence of wear and tear in the main area of the boat. The crew members who were off duty regularly used and sometimes monopolized the only bar/lounge area on the ship. Since only truly hearty travelers could be outside for long periods, this was odd and a bit inconvenient.

In any event, the lounge furniture was far more attractive than it was comfortable so for many reasons it wasn’t a very inviting area. The crew also habitually used the bathrooms in the bar area, which were in particularly bad repair.

Now, clearly the crew was permitted to use these areas, so I dont blame them for doing so. It was the wifi area of the boat, after all. But it certainly detracts from the ambiance to have the crew seated around you, glued to their phones.

The crew and servers themselves, were friendly, charming, and couldn’t do enough for you.

Our small group of passengers included 4 Norweigians, a French family, two Brazilians, and some other Canadians. All were pleasant, but none were especially friendly. I would have enjoyed having more people on board.

48 passenger Dragon Legend 1

As Ha Long cruises go, this company truly is in the top rank. We recommend them, provided you have realistic expectations.

Final note: we assumed it was the corona virus that left our ship 2/3rds empty and ready to deal. The guide on the boat, however, said that Chinese tourists did not make up a big portion of their clientele, as they gravitated toward the centre of the country (Da Nang, Hoi An.)

He attributed it to being immediately after the Tet holiday. He said cruises were in very high demand during Tet, and there was always a tourism lull just after. Something to consider if you are wondering when is a good time to visit Vietnam.