I ummed and ahhed on the way to Hanoi, straight from work and dressed like a teacher (not my opinion but that of every other guest at the hostel, who all seemed to assume that by wearing a floaty lavender skirt rather than the staple denim hotpants I MUST be a teacher). I was umming and ahhing whether or not I was too old, too mature and too in need of a proper bed and privacy, for the infamous Castaway tour of Ha Long Bay. Obviously I’m none of those things. I’m a 26 year old child who prefers attention to solitude. As Raleigh Ritchie puts it, I’m not growing up I’m aging. And I’m backing some great Crème de la Mer, so don’t start. Long story stort, within 2 minutes of being at the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel I was signed up and paid for the trip.
For those of you who are unfamiliar, Castaway (see website) is the original party tour of Ha Long Bay. As opposed to the plethora of other tours of the bay on offer, this trip is strictly for those who want to play. There are no families showing their grandmas the seaside, no newlyweds and no children. The closest relationships you get on this boat are witnessing the passionate throws of drunken snogging. A high-level summary: booze-cruise, beach party, skinny dipping.
Here’s the low down:
1. The Trip
Remarkably, the journey is not as awful as it had sounded from my research. It is an early start (and it’s going to hurt after a night out in Hanoi) but after filling up with a big breakfast you’ll be on the bus and back to sleep by 7.15. My research had painted horror stories of this bus ride. In reality it is a super comfortable, reclinable seating, air-conned coach that felt like it lasted for 2 seconds not 2 hours: I woke up happily at the harbor, having seen none of the Vietnamese countryside but content in having my sleep ratio somewhat restored. From then on, the journey gets a bit more complex. It’s an hour long ferry down the Mekong (not much to see there) then a slow but pretty coach ride for 40 minutes through the hills to Ha Long Bay itself. This is where you may notice that some drivers in Vietnam use their horn as an indicator, and as a brake, and as an accelerator. AKA, not the best accompaniment to the beautiful paddy fields rolling outside your window. But don’t complain you party pooper, because you’ve arrived! Almost!
The final component of the journey is the boat cruise to the final island destination, so climb up on deck. Hoist up the John B Sail. See how that main set sails. And get yourself a beer or few and enjoy the phenomenal scenery.
2. The Views
You’ll have seen the pictures. You’ll know what it looks like. But, in the exact inverse to the Beyoncé-esque twerking you did last night, Ha Long Bay is much better in reality than it was in your head. The scale of the majestic rocks jutting up from the lagoons took all of our breaths away. And it went on and on and on. Not in a boring way like long division, but in an awe-inspiring, magical, rowing-up-to-Hogwarts-on-your-first-day-of-school type of way. In fact, it is a lot like you’re in a film set: Lord of the Rings, Avatar, Jason and the Argonauts etc., except that the only imminent threat to the world is how hard one guy will cannonball off the side of the boat. I’m not saying that the beautiful green watered expanses, golden coves and striking rocks rendered our crew speechless. I know enough about one girl’s grandma, living arrangements and career history to fill out her electoral roll. But no one could help but appreciate the immense beauty.
As you float along you will also spot the unbelievable floating villages surrounding the shore. It looks like whole livelihoods are balanced in rickety barges and tied together with floating gantries. It is amazing to see how people love and live on the water so simply. It is a far cry from those with a second home in Salcombe who absolutely die to be by the sea in August. That’s a natural comparison right there.
It is worth noting that even if you don’t get bright sunshine, the views are just as impressive. On our trip back, a heavy mist surrounded us so that the grey rocks loomed from the fog, and it was equally as cool.
3. What to do
I won’t mention the obvious pastime just yet. Before the party properly begins you get the chance to enjoy the idyllic beach setting: sunbathing, swimming, kayaking and tubing. And if anything is going to induce me to exercise it will be a blush pink Barbie canoe (the same reasoning could encourage me to run if they made adult sized light up trainers).
Kayaking does require a certain grit and determination. It’s very tiring and even if you did get your DofE gold medal (or overseas equivalent) you would struggle with orienteering here. Luckily, every corner you turn is amazing and without trying you’ll find yourself tunneling through caves and into private lagoons. Make sure you’ve charged your go-pro before you set off.
4. Party time
My favourite saying is an Aussie one. It gets right to the point (as they do) in a relatively overt fashion (as they do). Applying it here: ‘if you go to castaway island mate, you don’t go to **** spiders.’ So don’t go if you aren’t going to party.
It kicks off for good at around 5ish when the previous cohorts come back from their booze cruise. There’s a gong that, once rung, means some generous chappy has bought the entire squad (approx. 40) a round of either shots of tequila or a can of beer sliced open at the bottom. It got rung a. lot. We cheered a. lot. I now have stories that cannot be repeated on such a clean medium as the internet. It was much like freshers week, except rather than being in a small town in the North East of England we were on a desert island in Vietnam. Either way, I felt like I regressed 8 years. We all did. The gong was the conch. We were the lords of the flies. Then suddenly someone remembered a story about plankton we’d heard when we were sober. After rushing into the pitch black sea we realised it was true: the plankton glows in the dark. I nearly cried as we splashed about in the luminescent ocean, sparkling in the sea. It was almost as emotional as that time in front of the great hall…
5. The lodgings
Downside. Bunk beds. Mixed dorms. No air-con. No escape. Sand pit beds. The noise. I’m too old for this. Is that sex I hear. Is that sex I hear? Shut up. Please. How is there so. much. sand. everywhere? I am hot. I’m cold. Omg I’m sober. It’s morning. Where is the bar?
But they look pretty.
- You can go for just one night. Especially if you’re (a) low on funds, (b) low on time or (c) too much of a princess to spend any more time in that hell-hole of a dorm.
- Staying two nights, though, means you get to go on the booze cruise which is where the fun really happens.
- You need to be in Hanoi the night before and you can easily just book onto the trip at that stage. You’ll be back in Hanoi by 5pm on your return.
- Don’t bother taking your book.
- It is a great trip for solo travelers looking to socialise.
- Try and switch off. Sadly my phone got 3G and I’m too conscientious not to check my emails from work and messages from my boyfriend.
- Don’t expect fine dining. You’ll get what your given.