Halong Bay, Vietnam - a serene sea with thousands of limestone pinnacles and outcrops, stunning scenery, caves and a floating village. Read about my totally magical and surreal experience
We were so excited as we awaited our early morning transfer from our Hanoi hotel. We were heading for the mystical and enchanting Halong Bay where thousands of limestone karsts and outcrops burst skywards from the depths of the South China Seas. This was to be the highlight of our Vietnam trip; a day cruising, kayaking, swimming and fishing followed by a romantic night moored amongst the beautiful limestone formations of Halong Bay on The Red Dragon, a traditional Indochina sailing junk (indochina-junk.com). Approx $180 per person for one night including transfers to and from Hanoi. Mai, our rep from Indochina Junk who we’d been corresponding with by email would be accompanying us on the drive to Halong.
On pulling away from the hotel Mai took a call, turned to us and said: "there’s a typhoon coming, no boats will be allowed out from the harbour today". Major disappointment. We could have spent an extra night in Hanoi before our flight to Hue but no way were we going to let the weather, of all things, stop us seeing Halong Bay. We decided we’d go anyway and try and book into a hotel and chance a short morning trip out by boat the next day when the forecast was better. The minibus had the previous day’s group to pick up and bring back to Hanoi and would be making the trip anyway. Apparently these mini typhoons are a regular thing and sometimes arrive, blow some and go again all in a day but the authorities will not let the boats sail until it has passed. This was October, the rainy season ends in September so it probably shouldn't have come as a shock.
The three and a half hour drive to Halong passed surprisingly quickly as there was so much to see en-route and observing everyday life along the roadside was fascinating. Water buffalo waded through the fields while farmers in their coolie hats tended the lush, green, rice fields and the ubiquitous scooters and bicycles peeped and parped at anything that came into view. Where we passed houses lining the roads, I couldn’t resist a sneaky peek. Many were painted turquoise and consisted of one room, housing a double bed, refrigerator, table and not much else, in less rural areas were the traditional tube houses; tall, narrow buildings, one room wide which go back and back, sometimes with an outdoor courtyard between the front and back of the house. Many of the houses had vegetable patches filled with carefully tended rows of succulent salads, herbs and fruits. We stopped off at Chan Tien My craft centre (www.chantienmy.com.vn) about half way through the journey where there is a large shop selling incredible embroidered ‘paintings’, lacquer work, carvings and good quality souvenirs crafted by local disabled people. There is also a 'happy house' (toilet facilities) here.
On reaching a grey, overcast Bai Chay Beach, just outside the city of Halong, we found it eerily quiet and deserted with just a few locals manning some souvenir stalls and beach bars. Not quite a tumbleweed scenario but not far off. We headed for one of the larger hotels nearer to the jetty – the Heritage Hotel - and managed to get a room with a wonderful view of the bay, albeit shrouded in mist. The hotel was somewhat 'tired' but clean and an adequate base for one night; rated a four star but in my opinion possibly only worthy of three. Mai would pick us up the next morning, if the typhoon had passed she’d organise a hire boat for us, if not then we’d travel back to Hanoi first thing. What a tease, we could see the bay from our room and the weather didn’t seem that bad... All we could do at this stage was hope – and go find some lunch.
Next morning, the typhoon had passed, the boats had the go-ahead and we headed out to the jetty where Mai (who incidentally helped us enormously and was a complete star) pointed out our boat, a large wooden, motorised junk nudging its way through the throng. The small jetty was packed with boats, thick diesel fumes filling the air, horns blaring and all jostling for positions nearest the quay. Sam pans were bravely edging up to the bigger boats, dropping off produce and crew whilst the excited, chattering, crowds attempted to board. We climbed over two other boats to reach ours, hanging on to railings and ropes on the way and made it safely onto the deck and were greeted warmly by our captain. The engine spluttered as we gradually set out to sea in the early morning rush hour in a noisy, fume-filled, flotilla full of tourists.
As we left the quayside the traffic began to thin out, the air freshened and the atmosphere became more tranquil. The huge limestone, almost vertical, outcrops loomed towards us from the mists and were incredible to see as we weaved through, necks craned to see their lofty tops. We headed to where many boats were moored and after climbing some very steep steps spent half an hour clambering through the dramatic Hang Dau Go Caves where huge, illuminated stalactites and stalagmites resembled forests of trees and gigantic cauliflowers.
We continued our voyage through this mystical landscape and encountered one of the four floating villages in the Bay. Brightly painted, small wooden houses with verandas and herb gardens built on rafts buoyed up with large, blue floats. Vietnamese flags fluttered in the breeze as people rowed from house to house, hung out their laundry, prepared food and fished. Members of this small community survive by fishing and cultivating fish in farms within their floating villages some of which are sold to passing junks and tourists.
As we rounded a large outcrop the karsts seemed to continue into infinity looking like shadowy giants emerging from the ocean, it felt very magical and serene (typhoon - what typhoon?). The sun started to break through, burning off the mists and we spent about two hours touring the limestone outcrops and isles, our captain pointing out unusual rock formations – a lion and the ‘kissing’ rocks. In the distance we could see the mainland; sadly our trip into Halong Bay was almost over - it was time to head for shore. Although we didn’t spend the night on The Red Dragon and have two days amongst the karsts kayaking and swimming in much less crowded waters the experience that we did have was magical, surreal and one I’ll never forget. And to think we nearly didn’t go….