Ever since James Bond (Roger Moore) flew a plane through an incredible thousand island landscape in his search for his arch enemy Scaramonger (Christopher Lee) in the Man with the Golden Gun, I’ve wanted to visit the place. Research informed me the sequence was shot in Vietnams Ha long Bay. Top Gear teased me years later by shooting a sequence where they paddled through the amazing rock pinnacles arriving at a floating village.
Now it was my turn.
The coach journey took 4 hours which included an obligatory stop at the grand daddy of souvenir shops, a tourist supermarket. Every kind of souvenir was on offer and a few good deals could be done, but much of the produce was also available in Hanoi for half the price.
Arrival at the dock an hour or so later we were quickly transferred to our boat, the Palermo.
The boat was fabulous, the food incredible, the scenery breathtaking, the schedule a nightmare. One of the stops was at Surprise Cave. We had 45 minutes to climb up to the cave, walk through the huge caverns, climb out of the cave and descend the long path back to the dock. Achievable if you don’t stand still for anymore than a few seconds at a time and not what I wanted to do. This became the first of many times over the next three weeks I was told to “hurry up everyones waiting”. It became a familiar tune I refused to dance to.
More than once my response to this urging by Twee our Uni staff member was a less than respectful “Baaa…”, admittedly once she was out of ear shot. The positive side to this was Twee became my companion on most of the excursions and learned I was not to be hurried.
Ha Long Bay was a place I’d been waiting years to photograph, so rushing me through the experience to match someones idea of a schedule was something I flatly refused to do despite the pressure. After all once back on the boat there was nothing for us to do until the evening meal yet the Vietnamese tour operators were completely inflexible in the allotted time allocated to see things. It became the most irritating and recurring part of the whole trip and led me to question whether student experience trips or even ‘package’ tours were good value for money.
Ha Long bay is a wonderland of coves, bays and hidden places. You could hide a Navy in this place and they’d never be found. Unfortunately because of the schedule you see virtually everything from the ship. There are no beaches to speak of and precious little time on land. Its like being at a sumptuous banquet and told you can eat only a sandwich. My appetite to explore was unsated.
The reason for wanting more time on land was to take some HDR photos. This requires a tripod, a decent view point and a bit of time. I carried the tripod everywhere, had loads of great view points but zero time to take any shots. Its not possible to take HDR shots aboard ship as all the frames are out of alignment as the boat rocks in the waves.
Frustrating doesn’t begin to describe my emotions and once or twice I dug my heels in and took my time so the excursion wasn’t a complete waste of time. Others obviously felt the same and as we made our way back to the dock from the cave I was joined by three others. Sadly the whole way back was accompanied by the sound of the boat claxon urging us to hurry up destroying the little peace and solitude I had come to see..
Attempting to chill out, I had an early night and got up to experience the Tai chi on the top deck just after sunrise but far too soon we were heading back into port for the journey back to Hanoi. The boat trip is billed as a two day, one night excursion which is a bit of a lie. Half a day is taken getting there at the start of the trip and half a day is taken getting back to Hanoi. Four or five hours of daylight is all you get to view Ha Long the first day and an hour of that is spent actually getting to the islands. You get from sunrise to midday the next day to view the bay again (the same route as you saw the on the way out) before you’re back in the port to go home. The only compensation was the food which was excellent.
Not satisfied with just one visit, two weeks later I was back for a two night cruise on a different boat. Sadly the same attitude prevailed and we were granted 30 minutes to go for a swim on a beach! I argued that wasn’t enough and that was increased to 45 minutes but the tour operator still began rounding people up after 30 minutes. A most glorious sunset was missed as we made our way back to the boat. Staying on land for an extra 20 minutes to watch the sunset wasn’t allowed. Again back on board there was free time until the evening meal so really no reason to rush back.
We finally made landfall on Cat Bar island but in perhaps the heaviest downpour I’ve ever experienced. I was finally on land but me and my gear were completely soaked. The excursion was a cycle trip through the jungle to a village and back again. Donning an assortment of waterproof ponchos and jackets the 5km trek was actually good fun. The landscape around the village was spectacular and I could have easily spent several hours there despite the rain. The rain finally eased on the way back and I managed to get a few shots, but the ever present schedule clock was ticking away and I was inevitably the last one at the dock and quickly hurried back on board.
I’ve grumbled a lot in this article about the time factor so my advice to photographers who intend to come here is explore Ha long under your own steam, don’t do the package. The sights are worth the trip, the photos are amazing, the place is worthy of its World Heritage status, its just the Vietnamese put money (i.e. their schedule) before customer satisfaction something they need to address very quickly….