If you’ve seen a travel show abut Vietnam, you’ve likely seen Halong Bay. Craggy peaks rising out of turquoise blue water, strangely shaped islands stretching to the misty horizon – it’s a romantic, exotic picture. And the good news is, those pictures are true.
Halong Bay is a couple of hours away from Hanoi by car. But it’s trip to a whole other world. You leave the steamy city and arrive in a place full of fresh sea breezes and dramatic vistas, where the waves rock you to sleep and fishermen row their single-oared boats past your breakfast table.
The downside, of course, is that a place like this doesn’t go undiscovered. Thousands of tourists flock to Halong Bay from all over the world, to spend a day, or a couple of days, exploring the chain of islands that dot the long, wide bay. That means the more popular spots are crowded with tour boats, some sporting fake sails on top to make them look like Chinese junks.
Everyone advised me to spend a night on Halong Bay, so I did, booking a two-day, one-night tour from Hanoi. In reality, it’s the only way to see much of the area: with a rest stop in the middle, the bus trip takes three hours each way, so if you try to do it in one day, you end up with just a brief afternoon to see the sights.
But it’s a place well worth a couple of days, especially if you like to take photographs. These are pictures you won’t get anywhere else, with the possible exception of the Yangtze River in China. The iconic scenes begin to appear as soon as you leave the harbour. Steep cliffs jut out of the sea, some covered with green foliage, others showing huge faces of weathered rock.
Halong is the result of wind and weather wearing away huge hills made of a limestone called karst over thousands of years. What’s left are oddly shaped hills and columns, some long and curving, some round or square, some tall and sharp — almost any shape you can imagine. The locals like to name them after animals they resemble, like the Parrot or the Dragon.
Most tours, like mine, visit some of the more accessible islands; two-night tours reach some of the more remote spots, such as Dau Go and Tuan Chan Islands. But even on a short visit, you see some remarkable sights. Our first stop was Hang Sung Sot, or Awesome Cave, on Bo Hon Island. And for once, the word “awesome” wasn’t an exaggeration. The cave system carved through this piece of rock is the most remarkable I’ve seen.
A steep set of stairs led up to an innocent-looking entrance. But from there we descended into a labyrinth of huge chambers, filled with stalactites and stalagmites in a hundred different shapes. There were ponds, tunnels leading into the darkness, vaults that rose up to the sun, rocky ceilings that looked like they’d been carved by prehistoric chisels. And the Vietnamese have added dramatic lighting here and there to make it seem even more like a trip to the underworld: amazing sights everywhere you look.
After the cave, there was a short hop to a local dock where we all donned life vests and jumped into kayaks for a close-up look at the weathered cliffs and the greenery that clings to them. Being a first-rime kayaker, I left my camera behind for fear of water damage, so sadly, there are no photos. But it was a great way to see the bay – and to get quite a bit of it on myself. Luckily, the water was as warm as bath water.
With darkness falling, we returned to the ship for a dinner that included everything from curried chicken to local shrimp and squid, along with papaya salad and a few Ha Long beers. And after an evening spent partying on the top deck with fellow passengers from Spain, Holland and India, it was time for bed in my wood-panelled cabin.
Disappointingly, the program for the second day consisted of a visit to a pearl farm – interesting if you haven’t seen the process, but frankly commercial. Of course, there was a showroom full of jewellery in case the demonstration kindled a longing for a piece of the real thing.
And that was the last of our landfalls in Halong Bay. But I didn’t mind: a morning spent relaxing on the top deck as we cruised through the islands, gazing at one romantic seascape after another, didn’t seem like such a disappointment. In fact, for me, just being there, watching this remarkable scenery sliding by, was better than a whole day of being shown tourist attractions.
Here and there, as we watched, a brown hawk would soar by, looking for a fish to snag for lunch. And amazingly, at one point I looked down to see a beautiful butterfly settle down on the chair right in front of me.
Just to show you what it all looked like, I took a bit of panoramic video. Here it is.
There’s more to see in Halong Bay: more amazing caves, and islands with beaches and trails you can climb for great views of the bay. There’s even an island with a kind of theme park, including French colonial-style villas and a sea world show. If you want to see it all, you can stay in nearby Halong City and book private tours with the tour companies there.
For me, the short visit was enough, the last adventure in a trip that took me from one end of Vietnam to the other. And while a little more research might have bought me a better tour, the experience of seeing Halong Bay – even with the hordes of other tourists around — was worth the effort, and the small amount of money involved (you can book tours from Hanoi for less than $100 U.S.).
Halong Bay is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And if there’s a natural wonder in Southeast Asia that deserves the designation, this is it.