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After another excellent breakfast, we packed our backpacks, paid our bill (which included the cruise), and were carefully shepherded into a luxurious mini-van that inside looked like something out of an expensive rap video. We drove through the streets of Hanoi, past the lake and the museum we visited yesterday, through the city outskirts and onto a highway much like any other highway in the world. The other passengers were a young Italian couple. Our guide/minder was a young Vietnamese woman called Tree (though she suggested we use ‘Three’).

A word about Vietnamese names here. Everyone has so far given us an English name, and in the majority of cases we’ve taken pains to ask for and remember their Vietnamese name. We learned later that some of these English names are self-chosen, some are chosen by the company the person works for, and some go back to an earlier choice and are now even used by the person’s own family. But it’s a shame that it seems to have accepted as necessary that foreigners can’t be bothered to remember a simple Vietnamese name. Anyway, I’ll use whatever name we eventually ended up using for a person, usually after asking and learning the person’s preference.

After a couple of hours we stopped at a packed tourist roadstop, with a line of parked vans disgorging packs of wandering tourists to take advantage of a bathroom and a chance to buy something.

Another hour or so on the road and we came to a small collection of buildings on the waterfront, there to pass a bit of time in a waiting room until our transport to the cruise ship (moored out across a busy channel) was ready. We piled onto a small boat, donned lifejackets and were motored out towards a group of large tour ships. Our ship, the Perla Dawn Sails, is only 6 months old, and looks like the strange love child of a ferry and a sailing ship.

We were warmly welcomed by the staff and given a welcome drink and an introductory talk in the ship’s restaurant. Everyone was encouraged to stand up in succession to introduce themselves. We had, among others, a large, noisy group from Malaysia, an old couple from Denmark, and a couple from Chicago accompanied by the man’s Korean parents.

Next we were shown to our cabin, number 208. A beautiful little cabin, all wood panelling, with a golden relief of lillies and goldfish on the wall at the head of the bed. Air-conditioning, a little balcony with 2 chairs and a table, and a wooden-floored bathroom with a bathtub by the window.

A delicious lunch followed – clams and shrimp were on the large buffet. Then we looked around the ship as the Perla Dawn, one of a procession of ships, began slowly motoring through the strait along the north shore of Cat Ba Island, past towering, eroded limestone cliffs. We were incredibly lucky with the weather – a blue sky above and a light, cool breeze.

At about 3.30pm we got back into the small boat (now being towed by the ship) and motored into a little bay where suddenly appeared around a corner a confusion of other, smaller cruise ships, kayaks, and bamboo rowboats clustered around a floating collection of shacks and pontoons where oysters are farmed (later, we saw a huge groper swimming around the oyster nets). Here we transferred to small wooden rowboats, and a young woman standing at one end rowed us for about an hour to a beautiful sea cave that led through a mountain and into an enclosed bay. When the old Danish man sitting next to me finally stopped chatting, our boat of 6 fell silent and enjoyed a peaceful trip, though there was a lot of shouting and crying out from the kayaks and other boats.

Back to the floating shacks, back to the boat, and back to the Perla Dawn. Most people got off, but a few of us stayed with the boat, which puttered closer to the shore, where I and some others dived off the boat for a swim. Beautiful water, perfect temperature, and very refreshing.

As the sun went down we moored in a bay and in the distance we could see many other cruise ships, all lit up. It was stunning. Later, dinner on the top deck. I started with a dry martini. The menu was long and delicious – I can’t get tell you what a pleasure it is to be eating well after our somewhat lacklustre cooking efforts at home lately. We were entertained by a member of the ship’s staff called Mr Tan, who played 2 traditional North Vietnamese pieces on flute and single-stringed instrument with a tone bending rod (this is a monochord zither called a dan bau). Then he strapped on a guitar and played a bizarre South Vietnamese tune, singing in an off-key voice, playing out-of-tune, and with very enthusiastic, almost rock and roll, vocal stylings. He got so into it I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d smashed the guitar at the end Pete Townshend-style. It was (unintentionally) hilarious, but everyone gave him a huge round of applause which he obviously really enjoyed.

We had a long conversation with a young man on staff called Cuong who raved about Hoi An and said we should spent 5 days there.

Carol was tired after dinner and went to our cabin, but I stayed up with a double Glenfiddich, tried my hand at a bit of squid fishing (bobbing bamboo lines off the side of the small boat – no one caught anything), and then called it a night.

We are so glad we picked this ship and cruising in this area. Cuong said that Ha Long Bay itself is absolutely packed with some 600 ships, and this southern area of Lan Ha Bay is much better – just as spectacular and only about 50 ships.

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