I went to Vietnam recently for my first visit and, while I was there, I took a two-day trip to Halong Bay. Known in Vietnam as Vinh Ha Long, it is one of the natural wonders of the world and one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.
We were picked up by mini van at our hotel in Hanoi early one morning and taken out of the city with a group of around 20 other people. As often happens in Vietnam, we discovered they were a real mixed bag, students, backpackers, people who were doing a trip around the world, a retired teacher, a woman who was a nurse for six months of the year and then traveled for the other six months. The mini van trip to Halong Bay took around three and a half hours with a couple of stops for the bathroom and a shopping opportunity. Eventually, we stopped at the side of what looked like a large lake. It was then I had my first glimpse of Halong Bay.
The air was damp and misty. A light fog was curling off the water and coming inland and, out in the bay, poking eerily out of the water and mist were enormous limestone crags.
Halong Bay is more than 1,500 square miles, and has over 1,600 of these limestone islands and islets. It’s also dotted with caves and underwater grottoes, and sailed by traditional Vietnamese junks and sampans. To this day, it still looks like something out of another world.
As we were walking down to the water, our tour guide told us that Ha Long meant “dragon descending” and was named after a dragon who was asked by the Emperor to help him stop his enemy who were invading. So the dragon spat out jewels, which turned into rock formations and stopped the enemy in their tracks. To this day, it is believed the dragon still lives at the bottom of the bay waiting to help again.
At the water’s edge, there was a large junk (an old Vietnamese boat). We all climbed aboard, the junk cast off, and we headed out into the water. As soon as we set off, the mist began to lift, and the junk’s crew came around with drinks and we were told that lunch was served. The boat was so large that everybody was able to get a window seat and, as we ate an amazing seafood buffet, the junk drifted out into the bay and began to sail by enormous limestone islands jutting out of the water. It was truly unbelievable.
After an hour of sailing, we were told we could go up to the top deck and sunbathe. Just feeling the sun beating down, with the clear blue water below, while we passed island after island was simply breathtaking. Everybody laid out on the top of the boat and talked about our lives, until we heard a call from below and realized we were pulling into a cove.
The junk anchored and our tour guide came up top to tell us we were at Me Cung Cave (known as Bewitching Grotto) and that we could leave the boat to see it. Here we were able to squeeze through a tiny slit in the rock and into the most enormous cave with stalactites and stalagmites all around. We followed the grotto through and out to the other side, where we climbed up some stone steps until we could see out into a beautiful blue lake with other junks and sampans floating on it. It was so clear and so beautiful.
Back on the boat, we were served Vietnamese wine and the sail continued. After another two hours, the boat was anchored and we were given 30 minutes to swim. Almost everyone onboard immediately dived overboard, along withpassengers from a couple of boats nearby. The water was shockingly cold, but we quickly got used to it. It was also so clear that, diving underwater, you could see just how deep the bay was – or at least, you couldn’t see, it was so far down.
Once back on board, the junk set off again and after a couple more hours, we anchored at Cat Ba. Cat Ba is the bay’s largest island and also a national park. Here we stayed overnight in a little family-owned hotel, and ate dinner at a wonderful seafood restaurant by the water.
Cat Ba Town though is very run-down. It’s a poor town, where many of the young people have already left and, those who were left behind, are planning their escape. A tiny strip of grey sand runs down by the water, with a concrete promenade built next to it. Little strip malls of closed convenience stores and shops are next to the water, with streets running off them full of tiny unfinished hotels. It felt very much like a ghost town, so we were surprised to see a night club that was quite lively and full of Vietnamese and Westerners.
The morning after, after breakfast, we set off back on the junk. Several people were staying behind to take trips inland to see Cat Ba’s wildlife and flora and fauna. We however had decided that two days was sufficient time to see what we wanted to see.
The sail back was similar to the sail there, except this time we pulled up alongside an old lady selling fish from her boat, and one of the boat crew bought some of her catch, which we were then served for lunch. Delicious.
Ha Long Bay is a must-see if you ever travel to Vietnam. It’s one of the largest, most unique natural wonders I have ever seen and still so unspoiled you can see how it has always looked. Most tour groups offer one day, two day and three day tours, all of which show different areas of the bay. Go now before it is changed by the mass development that’s likely to head to this area now that Vietnam’s economy is booming.