The quiet wonder of Halong Bay

By Simran Panaech, Asia News Network

“It’s, oh, so quiet, it’s, oh, so still,” sings Björk, Icelandic singer in her 1995 hit “It’s Oh So Quiet”. This song plays in my head as I look out at the scenery of Halong Bay in Vietnam.

Despite the rocking of the cruise boat I am on, in the emerald green water with sea-eagles gliding above in the foggy blue sky, there is not a sound. It is unusual to me how defeaning the silence is, so unusual that I had to grab my iPod and listen to some music.

Halong Bay, recently voted as the provisional New7Wonders of Nature, based on the first count of vote results, and also previously chosen as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1994, covers an area of over 1,500 sq km. It is located in the northeast of Vietnam in Quang Ninh Province.

The bay consists of 1,969 islands, which are spread out in two areas: Halong Bay, which means descending dragon, and Bai Tu Long Bay, which means baby dragon. Halong Bay is also considered the mother dragon.

Bai Tu Long Bay occupies three-quarters of the bay’s total area. Legend has it that the baby dragons remained after they helped the Viet people fight off invaders in the country’s early years.

The only seven wonders of the world, of any kind, that I have visited are the pyramids of Egypt. I can’t compare their breathtaking beauty to Halong Bay, since one is a wonder of the ancient world and the other a natural landscape. But after seeing the pyramids, as much as I thought them amazing, my initial reaction was of indifference.

I blame it on the many documentaries I had watched prior to seeing the pyramids in person. Halong Bay, however, really stunned me, despite the photographs I had already seen of it.

The sheer breadth of the natural limestone landscape is one beyond comprehension.

I chose to see Bai Tu Long Bay as the tour was more private, being away from the majority of tourists that cruise the other bay.

Finding the right cruise is a feat in itself. Searching through one website after another, reading numerous reviews with extreme points of view from excellent to horrid, the one agency that pulled through with impeccable service and exceptional advice and recommendations is Indochina Legend Travel (www.indochinalegend.com).

I chose the cheapest tour with a relaxing and relatively private itine-rary called Bai Tu Long Cruise at US$229 (S$300), based on a solo traveller. The general manager, Nguyen The Nam, recommended I try the Prince III cruise that had a similar itinerary but on a more luxurious ship. His recommendation was spot on.

An extremely relaxing tour, my group had five travellers-two older couples from Chicago and myself. They told me that they paid US$265 each for this tour. Our tour guide, 29-year-old Do Van Thanh, mentioned that this cruise was particularly popular with tourists from Australia and France. I chose the three days-two nights tour for a longer experience though Thanh said most people choose the two days-one night tours. He also said the longer one is better.

Prince III has four cabins that fits eight people and a crew of six people excluding the guide.

Service by all of them was personal, friendly and professional. Always ever-ready to please, the crew treated us so special that we really didn’t want to leave when the tour ended.

Two other things that stood out for me that made this cruise remarkable were the cabins that were comfortable, had nice decor and large bathrooms, considering we were on a boat that was 26m in length and 6m wide. Everything on the boat was in great condition especially since Prince III is only three years old.

The journey to Halong Bay started with an 8am pick-up at my hotel in Hanoi. There were eight of us in an 11-seater mini-van that was comfortable. The four-and-a-half hour drive had a 30-minute stopover at a Handicraft Village where souvenirs were made by disabled Vietnamese. The distance from Hanoi to Halong Bay is 170km and the road is relatively bumpy but bearable.

Once we arrive at Hon Gai Harbour, we are checked into the cruise. We get into a smaller boat that takes us to Prince III where we are served a seafood lunch and the cruise begins to Bai Tu Long Bay.

Along the way, the scenery is beautiful. The waters are calm, the rocking of the boat helps me to relax, the landscape and the sea-eagles gliding overhead make me feel at one with nature.

The bay really does look like a descending dragon. It was funny that my US travelling companions thought of the Western version of a dragon that has scales on its back while I thought of the Asian dragon that moves like a snake. Both dragons apply to this landscape.

According to Unesco’s World Heritage Convention, “the geomorphology of Halong Bay is known as a drowned karst landscape due to the exceptional combination of its limestone karst features which have been subject to repeated regression and transgression of the sea over geological time”.

Halong Bay is about 500 million years old but its limestone karsts were only revealed about 1,000 years ago with an earthquake and the recession of the sea. The pale grey limestone islands are steep vertical cliffs in shallow salty waters where you can see how the structures are formed over the years with the stacking of the rocks. The lines that cut through the rocks look like scratches on skin by fingernails, and the erosion that affects and changes it resulting in the formation of caves and the growth of flora and fauna. In low tide, you can especially see this natural phenomenon of change on the lower portions of the karsts that are submerged in water.

The first day consists of cruising along the bay then stopping to go kayaking where we see the limestone karsts up-close and finish off with swimming in the cold yet refreshing green water.

Dinner is another experience as all the food during this cruise is delicious. Fresh seafood such as sea bass, mackerel and snapper fish, tiger prawns, mussels and scallops that were bought from the fishing villages we visited or sailed past is served to us either grilled or fried in Vietnamese style complemented with chicken, beef, pork and vegetable dishes. The truly exquisite meals consisted of nine to 10 courses.

The sheer magnitude of the bay only really hits me on the second day of the tour. As I kept clicking away at all the karsts we sailed past, I kept thinking this area for Halong Bay is massive. Although we covered a good amount of area, you just know that the landscape keeps going on and on. That’s what really impressed me. Another example of how the wonder of nature reveals its sheer size that makes you feel so minute in comparison.

The karsts are uninhabitable due to its steep nature but that doesn’t stop people from living near them.

We visited Cong Dam fishing village to see how the people there live. With homes, schools and areas cordoned off for cultivating mussles and catching fish, the sounds of the village was like any other-dogs barking, children laughing, men talking loudly and ladies going about their daily chores.

The only significant difference is that they live their lives on water. Thanh pointed out that children go to school here till they are 12 years old, the young get married between the ages of 20 to 22 years and the dead are buried on the hills of the karsts.

Before visiting the village, a barbeque lunch was served on a private beach with a spot of swimming.

The day ended off with kayaking and more swimming. This evening dinner was served with the chef showing of his decorative skills by carving a watermelon into the shape of the boat we were on using thin slices of carrots as its sails. It was impressive.

The final day consisted of a morning exploration of Thien Canh Son cave where fishermen used to live in. They destroyed some of the stalactites and stalagmites within the cave to make space for their living quarters but Indochina Legend Travel moved them to a fishing village to live in so as to protect this cave from further damage.

Two of the calcium structures resemble a sea horse and a very long dragon.

It was encouraging to hear that the caves are protected as one travelling companion, Jenni Casales, 55, a retired school counsellor, says she hopes Halong Bay stays protected since its a wonder of the world.

All of us agreed that we would do this tour again. We appreciated the relaxing, non-touristy feel of the tour and the quietness of it all.

Both Lynne Brennan, 59, another retired counsellor, and I thought the cruise would involve more boats along the bay and the kayaking and cave visit would be more crowded but this tour made sure that didn’t happen. There was only one other boat that joined us that had three passengers on it.

I hope that being voted again as a new seven wonder that Halong Bay retains its beauty and does not fall into the tourist trap. Bill Casales, a 64-year-old retired school consellor, says he sees the potential in Halong Bay to become even bigger. He gives it 10 years for the area and Halong City to fully bloom with more hotels, more boats, shorter cruises such as four- or five-hour trips on catamarans and, of course, more tourists.

As much as the tourism will create more jobs for Vietnamese, that Thanh appreciates, I hope that everyone, including tourists, realises that nature should stay as it is-untouched and natural.

Only that way can we fully appreciate the beautiful world we live in and respect it for the wonder that it is.