The bay, dotted with countless mist-shrouded limestone islands, offers a stunning seascape that must rank as one of the most spectacular sights in Vietnam.
To enjoy the splendor and romance of Ha Long Bay, the wife and I joined a boat cruise. Trips of various durations are available; we opted for the popular three-day/two-night cruise. We would spend one night onboard and the second on Cat Ba Island.
The 3½ hour coach ride from Hanoi to Ha Long City took us through patchworks of rice fields. At the wharf, the scale of Ha Long Bay’s tourism business hit us as hordes of tourists milled about, while at the pier, countless wooden junks anchored close together.
After waiting a while, our tour leader led us to our junk. It looked pretty much like the others, done up in rustic wood and bright yellow sails. Our boat could accommodate 20 but since our group numbered only 13, there was no fear of crowds on board. En suite cabins took up the lower deck and the lounge-cum-dining hall, the middle deck. The top deck was where the best views could be found. We promptly plonked ourselves in the deck chairs as the boat set sail.
The hazy sky cleared as we left the harbor behind. Soon, the beguiling scenery that makes Ha Long Bay a worthy World Heritage Site took over. Ribbed limestone cliffs cloaked in tufts of vegetation, rose spectacularly from the sea.
As our boat meandered through a maze of oddly shaped pinnacles and craggy rocks, we began to understand why they have earned names like Buddha Praying, Toad Islet and Rooster Rock.
Heritage sites are chosen for their cultural and historical importance as well as geological uniqueness. Ha Long Bay offers a little of all three. The view is mystical and surreal at times. The scenery that typifies Ha Long Bay is also found in Guilin, China and Phang Nga Bay in Thailand, but Ha Long Bay stands out in terms of numbers — at last count, 1,969 islands pepper the 1,553sq km bay.
There is a romantic tale of how the islets came to be. A celestial dragon and her children, sent by the Jade Emperor to stop an invasion, spat pearls into the path of the enemy. The pearls became the islands that still stand today. This legend gave rise to the name “Ha Long”, which means “dragon descending”.
There is another version which says that the islets are the bodies of the mythical beasts. Indeed, on a mist-shrouded day, pinnacles that rise from the sea do resemble the humps and bumps of dragons.
Descending dragons aside, the islets of Ha Long are more likely remnants of an ancient seabed, shoved upwards by tectonic forces, and then sculpted by wind and water. The elements have also carved cavities in these structures, thus creating hidden caves and grottoes. At Sung Sot Cave, we stood in cavernous chambers that drip with stalactites and conceal unusual cave formations.
Some limestone outcrops in the bay encircle hidden lagoons. These can be explored only by kayaks or sampan, as entry is usually just a narrow opening at the base of the outcrops. When our kayak squeezed through the low arch of an overhang, we entered a lagoon enclosed by soaring rock faces. It was dead quiet. The only other sign of life was a lone hawk circling the sky above. We instinctively paddled slower so as not to break the silence. This was indeed a small piece of heaven.
Later, we paddled past another fascinating feature of the bay — its “floating village”. This is a flotilla of houses, and even a small school, set atop floating barges.
It would be idyllic to live here, we thought: Imagine waking up to views of the enigmatic limestone islets every morning! One family was seen having a meal inside their little boathouse while on another, an elderly man was repairing nets.
The people mostly fish for a living but many have learnt to exploit the burgeoning tourism of the bay — they load their sampan with seafood, snacks, fruits and even locally made wine to sell to tourists on junks. There were plenty of other junks like ours sailing through the bay but fortunately, the tourist hordes were easily swallowed up by the bay’s generous proportions. Our boat dropped anchor in a quiet bay in the company of several other junks that evening. After dinner, we hung out on the top deck; trading stories and watching the peaks surrounding us turn a dusky blue.
As night fell, the winter chill crept in and we quickly retired to the comfort of our cabin.