Vietnam’s Halong Bay is one of the seven natural wonders of the world and it did not disappoint. Located off the northeast coast, the bay boasts more than 2,000 limestone pillars and islands rising sharply out of the Gulf of Tonkin.
I cruised Halong Bay for two and a half days — I shot it at dawn, I shot it at dusk, I shot it at the height of the day, and still I could not take a photo that captured the majesty and scale of the place.
Halong means “descending dragon” in Vietnamese and the rocks and islets do look vaguely like dragon’s backs emerging from the water. The bay was one of the reasons I decided to come to Vietnam; I wanted to see the grandeur for myself and it was a bit surreal to actually be there after seeing so many photos of the place, to be gazing across the emerald waters from the rooftop deck of a chartered boat.
Hanoi is the main jumping off point for Halong Bay, which is a three-hour bus trip from the city. After some online research I booked a two-night cruise with the well-reviewed Kangaroo Cafe Tours. We were six in total: a German couple in their late 50s, two young, female friends from Dubai (Kristen from Miami, and Natalie from the UK), and a young English chap named Luke. The Germans were polite but mostly kept to themselves while the rest of us became fast friends.
A cycling trip on Cat Ba Island, the largest island in the gulf, was just one of the activities we enjoyed as part of our Halong tour. There was also daily swimming, a sunset kayaking paddle and a trip through Vietnam’s second largest cave, Hang Sung Sot.
The cave was enormous although its authenticity was dulled somewhat by flagstone paths, stone steps and artificial lighting. Better than a broken neck, I suppose.
And the kayaking was fun, too, although there were no water level grottos or rock arches to paddle through in that particular part of the bay.
The best activity by far was our bike ride through the forest on Cat Ba Island to a tiny, lowland village in the interior. It was so great to be off the boat and moving through the air on a hot summer day. The “jungle” was lush and dense all around us with a staccato whine of insects that Kristen compared to a horror movie soundtrack.
After 15 or 20 minutes the bush opened into a fertile valley carpeted with lush rice paddies and vegetable gardens. The village is home to maybe 200 souls and our guide, Frank, noted that the people are largely self sufficient, raising enough animals, fruits and vegetables to sustain themselves. The small homes mostly consisted of a single, sparsely furnished room but in many cases we saw TVs blaring and noted several satellite dishes.
Back on the boat we headed for Cat Ba Town and one last night before setting sail for the mainland. This is the wind down portion of my trip with one more stop in the seaside town of Hoi An before a last hurrah in Saigon. Halong Bay was a breathtaking climax to a trip that’s been loaded with highlights.
Adventures aside, we found time to sun ourselves and relax as the islands swept slowly past our prow. Special thanks to my trip mates who made Halong Bay such an enjoyable part of my journey. Together we climbed to the lookout atop the island below where we discovered camaraderie as good as the view. Thanks Natalie, Kristen and Luke, I hope the rest of your travels were safe and fulfilling.