Sunday, November 13, 2011

Naturally wonderful Halong Bay

In a great coincidence, this part of our trip brought us to amazing Halong Bay for an overnight cruise on the day that it was named one of the seven natural wonders of the world (#2). We agree with the selection committee—it’s a wonderful place. 

The bay, a UNESCO-designated World Heritage area, comprises more than 1,600 square kilometers. There are about humpy 1,900 islands sprinkled about, most rising straight up from the water. The waters are calm, perfect for boating, and we lucked out with two beautiful, sunny days. Oh, almost forgot the full moon, which rose over the bay just before we sat down for dinner on our boat’s back deck with the 17 other passengers onboard. Pretty darn nice.

The sails were lowered after the photo op
Our boat was a Chinese-style junk, the Pearl Dragon 1. It’s a lovely dark wooden boat with 3 decks and a couple of orange sails that weren’t really used for sailing (they were raised for a photo op while we were anchored near one of the islands but lowered soon after). Our cabin was cozy and well-equipped, and there were enough deck chairs for everybody. Perhaps the best part was the international passenger list – interesting people from France, Poland, Canada, Portugal, Spain, the U.S., and Singapore—a mixed age-group (we were probably the oldest). The guide who accompanied the boat declared that the language spoken on the boat would be English, much to our delight. As always when we’re traveling, it was great to learn about others’ travel experiences and to be able to share the fun. 

Our cabin

Getting to the boat from Hanoi involved a hair-raising, 3½-hour drive in a Toyota Corolla. This has to be one of the worst driving experiences in the world, and I could only give thanks that the driver was a capable, experienced Vietnamese driver and not me! The road was actually decent, but it was clogged with motorbikes, heavy trucks, buses, cars, SUVs, bicycles—you name it. There were ostensibly two lanes, but they became three or even four with all the passing involved. Mustn't forget the standard Vietnamese cacophony of horn-honking (does that do ANY good?). We had one close call when our driver lost focus for a few seconds as we approached an oncoming truck, but thankfully he noticed at the last moment and jerked the car out of the way of the truck. Glad we lived to tell about that one!

An international group of passengers
The cruise itself was just the opposite—relaxing, beautiful, and fun. In the 24 hours we were on the boat we were served 4 meals, all of them delicious, with a concentration on seafood (prawns, oysters, scallops, crabs, fish). Everything was included in the price (not sure what that was, since it was included in our total package from Tonkin) except the drinks.Which we drank.

After cruising for a couple of hours out amidst the islands, the seascape just getting better and better, we moved from the junk to a small tender that took us to one of the islands with a wide sandy beach. There we climbed up the hill to a nice (lighted) cave that was full of stalactites and stalagmites. In the late afternoon we got to kayak for about 40 minutes, around another big island, returning to the sandy beach as the sun was setting across the bay. Beautiful! Equally beautiful was the moonrise a little while later, when we were back on the boat and cruising to another part of the bay. We slept well that night!

Another amazing kayak experience

Morning brought another transfer by the tender to fishing boats rowed by tiny but strong local women that took us among more islands to a cluster of several dozen floating homes that make up a fishing village in the bay. The fishing people have been gathered there in recent years through the “guidance” of the government, which provides them with a floating primary school for the young children and electricity for 3 hours a night. The people are occupied in fish farming, oyster farming, and rowing tourists around. An interesting place that certainly looks idyllic, though life must be hard. 
The one-room floating schoolhouse

Our cruise all too quickly came to an end, and unfortunately we had to make the horrible drive back to Hanoi. But we lived through it again and ended the day with a flight to Hue to begin our journey in central Vietnam. We loved Halong Bay and regret that we couldn't spend another night or two cruising there.

Next: Touring central Vietnam


  1. Lovely; haven't ventured into SE Asia yet, but the picture you paint with your words (and the photos, of course) makes me want to be on that junk cruising Halong Bay now.

  2. The cruise looks idyllic,even a full moon! Great writing Anita, love reading all this.