When one goes to northeast Vietnam, Halong Bay is a must. I booked an overnight junk cruise online through the operator VSpirit Cruises. The choice was based on price and customer reviews on TripAdvisor. The package included transportation from and back to the hotel, meals and accommodation on board. Our itinerary included a cave visit, kayaking, traditional Vietnam puzzle solving, Tai Chi, hiking, swimming, and a hands-on demonstration of traditional Vietnamese food.
Halong Bay, on the coast of northeastern Vietnam, is anything but a typical seascape; it is a dreamscape deserving of its UNESCO World Heritage status and one of the natural wonders of the world. Over 3,000 craggy karsts arise from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin and stretch as far as the horizon. In a place this preternatural and bewitching, it is easy to understand how people could believe in a fantastical sea creature. ‘Halong’ literally translates as descending dragon. According to one version of Vietnam’s imaginative folklore, the Jade Emperor, ruler of heaven, sent a family of dragons from the heavens to help defend local land from foreign invaders. The dragons spit jade and jewels into the sea. Upon hitting the sea, they transformed into the numerous scattered islets, forming a formidable bastion hindering the invaders and protecting the land. A more scientific explanation goes that the karsts of Halong Bay are formed by millenia of wind and water erosion of porous limestone and dolomite.
Cave systems are also an integral part of the geology and beauty of Halong Bay. Our itinerary included a visit to the Surprise (Sung Sot) Cave. This cave, discovered by the French in 1901, is built into a cliff and said to be one of the largest caves of Halong. Entrance to the cave was by means of 600 stone steps, but at the top you will be rewarded with breathtaking birdseye view of Halong. Surprise cave had three chambers, each suceeding one larger than the previous. I have seen my fair share of caves in Krabi and Langkawi but surely, this was the mother of all caves! The most impressive innermost cave was a yawning expanse, the size of multiple football fields, with an uneven staglamite-covered floor reaching up to giant pendent stalactites. A closer look at the walls illuminated by artificial light reveals fossils of animal and human occupation from ages past. As we meander through the guided pathway, we come across pools of water, the occasional dripping sound a reminder of the natural forces that has carved out – and still carving out this place.
We then slipped into the waters for an hour of kayaking in the drizzle. Gentle ripples caress our kayak as we explored the waters in the demarcated area. We paddled far enough to an islet and cruised through its undercut chasm. We marveled at nature’s tapestry of blues and greens, sea and stone. No one can do beauty quite like mother nature.
The next morning I made sure to wake up early to catch the once-in-a-lifetime sunrise at Halong. I was surprised no other traveller had the same excited spirit that I had, but it also meant I had the whole deck to myself, peace and quiet. My mind had never felt so clear and contented for so long. After a gentle Tai Chi on the upper deck and breakfast, we set off for Ti Top Island.
Ti Top island had a tiny beach, its narrow stretch of sand a place for a placid ocean to lap. Peering into the transparent waters, you could see a treasure of the aquatic world every few metres, such as a shell or even dead animal. However we did not spend long on the beach as Ti Top is better known for the views it offers from its summit. We scaled the 400 steep steps to the highest peak. That day the weather was gorgeous, blue skies and pristine white clouds. We went snap-happy with the postcard perfect paranomic views of Halong Bay.
On the way back to shore, we had a go at making fresh Vietnamese spring rolls (goi cuon). I had made this before so it was relatively easy, but seeing the less experienced Westerners fumbling with the ingredients or overstuffing the rolls (a common mistake) was secretly amusing.
Just like other magnificent destinations, Halong Bay is crowded with boats of tourists. Does it make Halong Bay any less magnificent though? No. The dramatic views are there to be appreciated by as many pairs of eyes that make the journey here. Never let the excuse of ‘too many tourists’ or ‘too many people’ stop you from enjoying an amazing place and experience.
Things to note
- The best time to cruise on Halong is in Spring (March, April) and Autumn (September and October) when it is the cool, dry season.
- Some activities are optional, such as kayaking, swimming and climbing (on Ti Top island). You can choose to stay on board instead.