After a bit of confusion related to accessing what was, unbeknown to us, a fake website and receiving misinformation from the afore mentioned, we finally made it to one of the destinations in Vietnam that we were most looking forward to. The UNESCO World Heritage site of Halong Bay has, with good reason, recently been named one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Our trip to this amazing destination pretty much lived up to expectations.
There are very few ways to actually see Halong Bay. The only option that really offers appropriate time spent on the Bay involves booking one of the many “Junk”/ Cruise boats that take tourists into the Bay and offers a chance to get up close and personal with the incredible land/ seascape consisting of thousands of towering limestone pillars emerging like magic from the clear waters of the Gulf of Tonkin.
We had heard that it was important to choose your “Junk” carefully as quality varies and choosing the wrong one is an easy way to spoil the experience. With purportedly over 600 Junks cruising the Bay, choosing the right one is not such an easy task. We relied on websites and trip advisor reports and thought we had things figured out only to discover that the company we had elected to go with had duplicate websites. The site through which we originally had contacted the company was a copied one that did not actually belong to the company we wanted to book with. We were misquoted in terms of pricing and may have been on our way to an undesirable boat had we not, with the help of our amazing hotel manager in Hanoi, discovered the error in advance. After some fairly stressful discussions we got things sorted out and were on our way to Halong Bay.
The drive from Hanoi took a very pleasant couple of hours and gave us a chance to chat with some of the other guests who would be on board with us. When we arrived at the departure point we discovered a mass of minivans and people all doing as we were, being shuttled to their Junks from the main dock via smaller tenders. As we looked around at the Bay packed with Junks we could see how the ever increasing popularity of the area could easily lead to the demise of its natural beauty and magic. Although we were definitely marvelling at much of what lay before our eyes, we were also hoping that we would soon be away from the masses and able to get more of a sense of the natural tranquility inherent to the area.
Once we arrived at Halong Bay we were whisked so quickly away to our own boat that we didn't get much of a chance to get many pictures of the chaos of the harbour. The picture above may give you some sense of number of boats setting out to explore. The picture below will give you an idea of what the typical Junk looks like under sail.
The transfer to our boat was well organized and smooth. We were warmly greeted and welcomed onto what was a beautifully built and well maintained boat. We were all glad we had chosen one of the higher quality companies for this part of our adventure. After welcome drinks and check in we settled into our berths which themselves offered great views onto the water and seascape. We then enjoyed an amazing lunch of delicious seafood as we cruised out of the harbor and into the maze of islands that make up Halong Bay.
Below deck on the way to our berths....
The first afternoon included a couple of stops, one to an island with a lovely beach and trail to an amazing look out point and one at an island with a huge cave that at one point acted as a refuge for hiding Vietnamese soldiers. Whilst both of these stops were lovely, they were obviously on the itinerary of many other Junks and we had lots of company from folks on other boats. We had to admit that we were not loving the crowded nature of being on the well travelled tourist trail. We had been hoping to get more off the beaten track and we thought we had chosen a boat that would take us there.....we did get there eventually.
The pictures really don't capture the depth of the natural landscape. The area looks like a masterpiece painting that can not actually be real. Layers of variously shaped rock formations shooting up from the green blue water look like something that an artist has sculpted to depict a legendary world.
The colours were incredible and they seemed to change every hour. The picture directly below was taken on one of our hikes up the mountain on one of the island stops. The others were taken just a little while later from our boat.
In the evening, as we were moored amongst many other boats, I had a chat with the manager and discussed with him how we had read that this was a company that went to a more isolated area of the bay that was less crowded with similar boats. He admitted that yes, they try to do that but sometimes the tides are not conducive to going too far off the well worn trail. I explained how disappointed we were and he said that they would change the itinerary for the following day to make sure we were more secluded. I was so glad I had brought it up as the next day was amazing.
Under crystal clear skies we cruised amongst the extensive limestone formations, visited near deserted white sand beaches and best of all, kayaked through mystical caves and got to see the endangered Cat Ba monkeys frolicking in the jungle on a deserted island. It was pure magic. We spent the night in near solitude and marvelled at our boats twinkling lights on the water and the soft lapping of the gentle waves breaking against the boat.
Eric was the first to hit the water during our stop for lunch on day two. It was a little chillier than Koh Lipe but he didn't find that out until plunging from the top deck of the boat!
Fearon found a friend on one of our stops!
Another great view after another great climb on yet another great island in the Bay.
The kayaking was amazing but because it was pretty wet we didn't get a lot of shots. This cave led to an isolated bay where we stopped and simply listened to the sounds of the jungle around us.
Above are the endangered Cat Ba monkeys that we were lucky enough to see when we were kayaking. We were not, however, lucky enough to get many good photos as the memory card read full just as we started to take shots...uggg.
The next day we stopped at a floating fishing village where we were paddled through more incredible rock formations and caves. As we made our way back to the harbour we were sad to return and have head back to Hanoi. It had been a wonderful mix of guests on board and in the end we had had a wonderful experience. We can only hope that in the future, the balance between ensuring people can share in the experience of Halong Bay and maintaining the integrity of the natural environment so that it remains beautiful is taken seriously. The challenge is oh so difficult but so obviously important.
Vietnam may be communist but that does not in any way mean these folks lack the entrepreneurial spirit or the ability to seize opportunity. What you see above is a shop selling snacks and trinkets and yes, it is built directly in a cave on the outskirts of the floating fishing village.