Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Almost Heaven ... Halong Bay

How do you improve on a trip that offers sailing, sea kayaking, swimming, cycling, and caving in some of the most beautiful scenery on earth without adding martial arts? Add monkeys, or at least the possibility of monkeys. That's a short summary of our three days (well, two days, since travel there took a half day each way) in Halong Bay. We stepped off the information superhighway and followed Mother Nature's lure instead.

That's the intro I drafted for this post. I started to try to write something on the bus ride back to Hanoi, but the road was just too bumpy. After going through all the photos, I think I'll try to keep words to a minimum here and instead show you just how amazing it was. But first, a little background. "Halong" translates as "descending dragons." Legend has it that a family of divine dragons came from heaven to help Vietnam against an invading navy. The dragons were so taken with the natural beauty of the bay that rather than return to heaven, they stayed. Indeed, the 366 islands that jut up out of the bay could easily be the backs or tails of dragons. If you saw Tomorrow Never Dies, that's Halong Bay in the movie's climactic scenes.

First step was taking a bus from Hanoi to Halong City. The scenery in northern Vietnam is similar to that in the central part where Hue is, with the exception of a few industrial touches. We sailed the bay on a replica Chinese junk. This one is smaller than the one on which we spent the first day and night, and closer in size to the one on which we spent the second day. We were on a newly refurbished junk, the Marguerite. She had some nice touches inside as well as out.
The scenery in Halong Bay is absolutely stunning. My photos do not do it credit. Here are a few that may come close in some way. Our junk's first stop was at a fish farm in the middle of the bay. We also stopped at some caves. This is the view from the top of the hillside we climbed in order to enter the caves. And you had to love the warning sign that appeared throughout the path through the caves. Our tour guide pointed out one formation that was particularly interesting. There were others that were much more mundane. The sails on the junks are purely ornamental, especially on the high-rent boats. Then there are some junks with other ornaments. We spent the first night on the junk, and it was the best night's sleep I have had since January 2005. I don't know if it was the slight movement of the boat rocking or the white noise of the water lapping at the sides of the boat, but I slept so much more soundly than I usually do. The next morning we noticed that the boat was listing a bit to starboard. We wondered whether we should be concerned when one of the crew members came to the upper deck and asked us all to shift to the port side and to move some of the furniture there as well. One of the sons wondered whether we were essentially re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. We stopped wondering about it when those of us staying on the bay for a second day transferred to a smaller junk. As the Marguerite sailed away, we noticed that only one engine was working, which the physicists explained would make a boat list to one side.

The second day was spent on or around Cat Ba Island, the largest island in Halong Bay and home to Cat Ba National Park. In the morning, we stopped at a very small port in order to cycle into a valley in the island's interior. This gave us our fist close-up view of rice paddies. We also got our closest look yet at a water buffalo. There were some mundane views as well as some more breathtaking ones.
After lunch back on the boat, we spent the afternoon sea kayaking. We had passed an opening in one of the islands and asked the guide whether it would be possible to kayak through it and see what was inside. He said he thought the tides would be favorable, so off we went. That's me in the front of the two-person kayak. The husband was in the back, with our point-and-shoot digital cameras double ziplocked for protection. We couldn't leave the boat without them since the second stop of the kayaking was to be at Monkey Island. Inside the opening was a very pleasant cove.
Unfortunately, Monkey Island was, when we visited, without monkeys, though we heard from some other people that evening that the monkeys had been out when they visited earlier in the day. We heard what sounded like monkeys screeching in the vegetation, but none appeared to offer greetings. We did do some beachcombing, and found some pretty amazing shells. The husband also found some starfish and some trails of unknown origin. Monkeys would have made it better, but we weren't going to complain.

More than one scene reminded us of the movie Waterworld. Here are just a few.

After kayaking on the second day, we sailed to Cat Ba town, where we spent the night in a three-star hotel. After dinner, we walked to the darkened beach and had some fun with photography. You can see the results here, on younger son's photo blog. This morning, we sailed back to Halong City before spending the afternoon on a bus back to Hanoi. We've already talked about whether it might be possible to come back and spend several days in the bay camping, traveling between islands by kayak. It might take some doing to arrange such a trip, but it would certainly be worth it.


Karen said...

The views are awesome! Looks like you really had decent weather too. How lucky!

Anonymous said...

The bay and rock formations remind me of the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick which we visited last summer. I bet the tide in the bay where you were wasn't as big, though (35-40'). :-)

VA said...

The rock formations in the bay remind me of the ice bergs - in Antarctica!

Think what plastic has done to the entire world! Soon the art of the crude but functional woven basket will disappear - sadly!