Halong Bay, Vietnam

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By Radhika P. Nair

There are many wonders in the natural world and then there is Halong Bay. Located in northeast Vietnam, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is stunning to say the least. The Bay is littered with around 3,000 limestone islands that soar up from the blue waters. For the tourist a visit to the Bay is enhanced by a stay on one of the many refurbished junk boats that ply the waters.

It was on a summer day that the guide from the junk boat operator, Columbus, collected us from our Hanoi Hotel for the over four-hour long drive to Halong Bay. We spent a few minutes going around the Old Quarter of Hanoi picking up various other tourists and before long we were on our way. The drive, through the suburbs of Hanoi and briefly through the Vietnamese countryside was uneventful. After giving us a brief about the Bay and its many features, the guide let us enjoy the scenery. Mid-way through the drive we stopped at a handicraft store, supposedly run by a government agency. The large store featured all the usual suspects of beautiful lacquer ware, Vietnamese silk dresses, silk-embroidery paintings, crafts made of wood and even a gem section. After browsing through the selection of goods and a quick bite, we continued on our journey.

We were deposited at the Halong Bay wharf, crowded with small boats, around noon and we quickly scrambled onto a boat, which would hopefully take us to our junk. A little out of the jetty, the Bay opened up and there they were-the limestone karsts. Standing majestically in the sheet-like water and shimmering in the noon-day sun, the islands took my breath away. We began to spot junk boats, some many storey-high and some topped by sails. Then we spotted our boat, the Pinta Cruiser, a two-storey tall statuesque beauty. With just eight cabins, the Cruiser, is of the perfect size-neither too big, nor too small.

I had been worried that the cabin in the boat might be a bit too tiny, but my fears were laid to rest as soon as I glimpsed the room. The room, on the lower deck, was adequately big, with a comfy bed, lamps and night tables, air conditioner and a large window. The ensuite bathroom was also quite good. But, I did not spend too much time in the cabin as we had been told to assemble in the dining room, on the upper deck. The closed dining room had large windows and sturdy tables and chairs. A few minutes after we were seated, the servers started a steady procession of food. There was fresh and delicious seafood and meats cooked in the simple Vietnamese style. The vegetarians also had a choice of dishes, some made with tofu.

After the heavy and satisfying lunch, we retired to the open deck attached to the dining room. All this while, the Cruiser was riding the waves at a steady clip. The karsts were all around us and I could see why the Bay associated with a dragon (Ha Long translates to descending dragon). The many limestone hills resemble the exposed spiky spine of a submerged dragon. We passed fishermen in tiny boats and the other Halong phenomena-floating villages. It is believed that around 1,600 people live in floating houses in the Bay. As the limestone islands are mostly barren and cannot support agriculture, the inhabitants depend on the sea for survival. The floating villages have existed for hundreds of years and on some tours, visitors can visit one of these villages to experience the simple and difficult life of these people. The tour I was on did not have this option.

But we were to visit a limestone cave. Many of the rock formations, in the Bay, are hollow and there are enormous caves with numerous stalactites and stalagmites. So, we found ourselves being transferred into a smaller boat again and were taken to one of the karsts. Steps lead up to a cave opening and for about an hour, we walked around the most massive cave that I have seen. With multiple chambers and walls that have tinges of various colors, the cave was a wonder within a wonder. While coming back, pause a moment, like I did, at the top of the steps to take in the sight of the islands spread out before you. I made use of the opportunity to take as many photographs as possible. From this vantage point, any photo you click will result in a masterpiece.

Back on the Cruiser, we had some quiet time for ourselves. We made our way to the upper sun deck, which has many sun beds. By now, there were no other junks in sight. While there are many junk boats at Halong, the bay is so large that most junks are able to find secluded spots to moor at night. The sun deck was the perfect spot to enjoy the beauty of the Bay and also for some socializing with the other guests. But all talk stopped the moment the Sun started to set-the karsts bathed in the light of the setting Sun and framed by the stunning colors on the sky is a glorious sight. Then it was time for dinner and we were fed copious amounts of delicious food again. Post dinner, we were back on the sun deck. The sky was cloudless and the stars winked at us mischievously and the gentle, cool breeze lulled us to sleep. After a few hours, we reluctantly dragged ourselves to our cabin.

Next day, after breakfast, we went for a kayaking trip. This is the highpoint of the trip. While my husband and I tried valiantly to kayak in a straight line and steer our way, we fumbled and floundered. But we did manage to make our way between some beautiful karsts and seeing them from sea level made them seem all the more beautiful. After a point we just stopped kayaking and sat in the silence, surrounded by the rocks, taking in the gorgeous views. We returned to the junk for yet another massive meal and then it was time to say goodbye to the Cruiser and her reliable crew.

INFO:

There are many tour operators who offer cruises at Halong. We found Columbus Cruises to be reliable. They have three junks, all luxurious. The two-day, one-night tour is priced at $97 per person. Do check for seasonal discounts and offers. While all meals are included in the tariff, most drinks and beverages are not. You can bring your own drinks from Hanoi or buy them from one of the boat-shops that sidle up to the junk. These drinks are priced higher. If you have time, opt for the three-day, two-night tour. This includes a night’s stay on the boat and a night at one of the luxurious resorts on Cat Ba Island in the Bay. This heavily forested island has beautiful, pristine beaches and, since, not too many people choose the extended stay option, the resort and beach will mostly be deserted. The price starts from $219 per person. Seewww.columbuscruise.com.

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