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Hanoi Part 2: Halong Bay

by on May 2, 2008

Halong Bay is a sight to behold, with over 3,000 limestone islands jutting out of emerald green waters in the Gulf of Bac Bo. “Ha Long” means “Descending Dragon” and according to myth a celestial dragon once flung herself into the sea, her tail digging deep valleys and crevices in the mainland. As she descended into the sea, these were filled with water creating the bay. Another legend says that the Jade Emperor ordered the dragon to halt an invasion by sea. The dragon spewed out jade and jewels, which upon hitting the water turned into wondrous islands and karst formations, creating a natural fortress against enemy ships.

Halong Bay is not only breathtakingly beautiful, but it is also an invaluable artifact of natural history, containing records of geological events covering a period of more than 500 million years. It was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, and the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism has recently launched a campaign to recognize Halong Bay as one of the world’s seven natural wonders.

Hanoi Holiday arranged a day trip for us, and a Ford Transit filled with other tourists of various nationalities arrived promptly at 8:00 AM to pick us up. Our companions were a friendly bunch. There’s something about people who love to travel; their enthusiasm and sense of adventure are infectious and they’ve always got interesting stories to tell.

In the row in front of us was an Australian couple who was living our dream of long-term travel. Next to us was a retired Canadian gentleman who’d gone from the Air Force to wedding photography to global philanthropy. (He’s traveled all over Asia and Africa, among other places, and he’s adopted several children from the poorest parts of the world. He’s sending them to school and giving them a chance at a better life and in return all he asks is that they help others in whatever way they can when they are in a position to do so. Meeting people like that restores my faith in humanity.) We were also accompanied by two middle aged couples (Malaysian and Thai) who put my cardiovascular endurance to shame, and a group of Koreans and Japanese.

Halong Bay is three hours from Hanoi, and while it was a nice enough drive (no traffic!), I with the infamously tiny bladder was ill at ease for the first hour or so because our guide announced that we would only be making one stop.

Mercifully I managed to contain myself till we made it to our halfway point, a tourist stop with restrooms, a cafeteria and assorted Vietnamese products for sale, from ornate silver works to clothes and bags made by handicapped children. This is also where Ry discovered Hoa An, a snack food that tastes like hopia and has the texture of Choc-Nut. He’s dubbed it “Hop-Nut” and he’s extremely pleased with himself.

When we arrived at Bai Chay Tourist Warf in Halong City, we were greeted by a flurry of activity – tourists coming and going, vendors of all sorts, dozens of boats teeming in the water. Our guide shepherded us onto the Mihn Hang and we finally set sail.

As we went on our way, we were occasionally approached (and sometimes boarded) by vendors on boats sailing alongside us, offering us fresh fruits and vegetables.

Then we stopped at a floating market where we could buy fresh seafood then have it cooked on the boat for lunch. They had, among other things, the largest cuttlefish I’d ever seen and an exciting array of prawns, crabs and lobsters. Ry unfortunately does not share my enthusiasm for crustaceans because he thinks they look like insects and he refuses to eat anything with an exoskeleton. (I know, I don’t understand it either.)

After lunch, it was time to visit the caves. Those caves are one of the reasons you shouldn’t take up smoking. I thought my lungs would explode from the climb, and it was embarrassing that I had difficulty keeping up with the senior citizens in our group. Either they’re in extremely good health or I’m just terribly out of shape. I suspect it’s more of the latter, though they are particularly hardy folk. They were about my parents’ age, but if my dad were there he’d have taken one look at those steps and told us he’d wait on the boat.

It’s surprisingly cool inside the caves, and well lit too thanks to the lamps installed to light the path and illuminate particular rock formations. It’s all very well maintained, and it’s nice to see the effort that’s gone in to preserving something so precious and beautiful while sharing it with the general public. A path in and out of the caves has been laid out with steps and wooden walkways so that visitors don’t have to worry about slipping and cracking their heads open on the Vietnamese’s natural heritage. Our guide pointed out some of the more famous formations, stalactites and stalagmites in the shapes of people, animals and mythical beasts.

The cruise back to the wharf was a relaxing one. Tired from the physical exertion, I draped myself on a lounge chair on the deck. With my feet dangling over the rail and the cool wind in my face, lulled by the gentle rhythm of water lapping against the sides of the boat, I was the picture of contentment.

We arrived back at the wharf at around 5:00 PM. This was just a day trip for us, but if you have more time and wish to explore the bay further, you can spend several days on a boat similar to ours but equipped with sleeping quarters and a bathroom (tiles and running water and everything). That’s definitely on my agenda for my next trip to Vietnam. I love the idea of sleeping on deck under the stars in the middle of the water, though Ry still needs more convincing. If you’re not the roughing it type, you can book two- to three-day cruises on luxury boats starting from 120 USD.

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From → Foreign, Travel

5 Comments
  1. What’s more, I forgot to take a picture of the Hoa an. Bah.

  2. I know what you mean about those steps (going up to the caves)! I couldn’t speak for a while…and the whole experience made it painfully evident how out-of-shape I am!

    But I did enjoy the trip to Halong Bay…and I think it would be much better if it was a 1-2 nights trip…sleeping under the stars has my vote 🙂 And they say Halong Bay really looks its best in the early morning dew…

  3. I don’t know. I read this story about a couple who did it, and they said it was a lot less fun and romantic than they thought. Like the sailors were watching Vietnamese VCDs in the background and stuff.

    Of course the view of the sunset and sunrise off Halong Bay might jsut make it worthwhile.

  4. Monica permalink

    Hi, how much did you pay for your day tour? 🙂

  5. We paid $22 per person. 🙂 Sometimes hotels will charge you an extra fee for setting things up but thankfully our hotel didn’t.

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