My visit to Halong Bay in the north of Vietnam was one of those few visits where reality lived up to my expectations. All the pictures and stories from the travel promotions were dead accurate. UNESCO named Halong Bay a World Heritage Site – not once, but twice.
I booked a trip to Halong Bay while I was in Hanoi and paid $79 US for the trip. I realized later I could have booked essentially the same trip for $49 US – I moved too quickly when I saw a ‘promo’ that was no promo at all! The whole trip went like clockwork (at least by Vietnamese clocks). The bus picked me up at my hotel an hour after it was scheduled to do so. I expected this delay so I was not surprised. The bus took people of 8 different nationalities and me – the only Canadian – on a three and a half hour bus trip to Halong Bay. The bus trip was well worthwhile, not for the natural sights that I had been expecting but for the commercial sights.
The highway was of the same quality as anything you would expect in North America, short of an Interstate. I saw scores of new commercial and industrial buildings that appeared to be fully occupied and active. Here was first-hand evidence that Vietnam is transitioning rapidly from being a third world country to a modern, economically self-sufficient and affluent country. But I digress.
When we reached the bay, our guide led us on a short trip to a large dinghy that ferried us out to our boat. The boat was built on two levels – the lower level had only cabins, the upper level had a restaurant and kitchen. The meals were good and served with pride. The staff that knew a few words of English took every opportunity to practice their language skills on the tourists. And, speaking of English, even though there were 9 nationalities represented on our trip, the lingua franca was unquestionably English.
The quality of the boat did not live up to its photographs. I must take my hat off to the photographer for that. The boat was entirely serviceable, no question, but it wasn’t the Queen Mary the photographs had led me to believe. But, what the hell. I was there for a good time, not a long time.
And I did have a good time. The pictures here show exactly what I saw – hundreds of islands in the bay that either rose vertically or very steeply from the sea. This is not the place for beaches and rolling waves. This is the place for geographic drama on a grand scale. We anchored near these remarkable islands and spent the evening gazing at them. Our guide encouraged us to participate in karaoke in the evening but no one from the West or the Middle East (including me) had the temerity to do so.
After enjoying the scenery by boat we all piled back into the dinghy to travel a couple hundred meters to a kayaking dock. We put on our life vests and sank into our assigned kayaks. I had never been in a kayak before and I was certain that my Swiss-German kayak partner had not been in one either. Nevertheless, the kayaks were forgiving and we corrected our errors with brute force if not with skill.
In our kayaks, we skirted the islands up close. We could see the texture of the rock and marveled at the trees that clung to gaps in the rock that seemed to offer little purchase and no soil. We even saw a group of monkeys! I have no idea how the monkeys found their way from the mainland that was at least 10 kms away.
With the help of the kayaks we were able to travel through a cave that was open at both ends and visit a medium-sized lagoon. There was no development on these islands and they stood as they had for eons.
Within an hour we returned our kayaks, re-boarded our mother boat and steamed off to see a large and remarkable cave. This dry cave is part of the Halong Bay National Park. The footpath was well paved and the cave was well worth the visit. Exploring this cave certainly did not call for the dirty clothes and light helmet I wore when I was spelunking as a boy.
All of the tourist promos will tell you – and I concur – that your visit to Vietnam would not be complete without a visit to Halong Bay. In fact, I would not be surprised if Immigration officials started grilling tourists about their visit to Vietnam and, if they found they had not visited this remarkable corner of their world, sent them packing – telling them not to come back until they had ‘been there, done that’.
All photos by Jan Wall – All Rights Reserved