Halong Bay – The World Heritage Site, which translates as “where the dragon descends into the sea” is definitely a ‘must visit’ place when in Vietnam, although when we were there it was only a few weeks since one of the boats sunk with a loss of 12 lives. However, when I delved deeper into this tragedy I discovered it was a badly maintained day boat. There are numerous companies that cruise Halong Bay, so pick your cruise carefully. I would suggest any of the four or five star boat companies, as most offer very comfortable accommodation, excellent meals and most importantly a perfect safety record.
After a three-hour drive from Hanoi we arrived at Halong Bay and I admit that I was initially disappointed that the weather was not what I had hoped for as it was hazy and visibility was not good. However, I reminded myself that adverse weather conditions could, in some instances enhance a place, as we had experienced in Milford Sound in New Zealand.
According to local legend the Gods sent a family of dragons to protect the country from invaders. These dragons began to spit out jewels and jade, which turned into islands, which would magically appear in front of invading ships. Eventually the dragons’ powers became well known and invaders refrained from trying to conquer the area. The area became peaceful and the dragons decided to stay and live in Halong Bay.
Halong Bay consists of over 2,000 limestone monolithic islands, of which 989 have been named, most topped with dense jungle vegetation, rising spectacularly from the sea. Some of the islands are hollow, with enormous caves and grottos. Hang Dau Go is the largest grotto in Halong and was named Grotte des Merveilles by French tourists who visited the area in the 19th century. It has three large chambers that contain many stalactites and stalagmites. Tuan Chau and Cat Bau are two islands that are inhabited and have tourist facilities. The islands, limestone karsts, make an intriguing landscape with their heights ranging from about 50 to 100 metres. The area designated by UNESCO as the World Natural Heritage Site incorporates 434 square kilometres with 775 islands.
Cua Van, Ba Hang, Cong Tau and Vong Vieng are four floating fishing villages where the inhabitants earn their living by fishing and aquaculture. These islands are almost self sufficient with schools, shops amongst the houses. To visit these islands one needs to take a smaller boat from the cruise ship and passing closely by the floating houses with the children franticly waving at us was a pleasant sojourn from the cruising around the karsts. The floating shops visit the floating houses and to do their daily shopping these fortunate people don’t have to leave their homes.
After a safety briefing we met up with the other passengers before enjoying a pleasant lunch on the dining room balcony. The quality of the food was above our initial expectations, so the cruise was off to a good start. The accommodation aboard our 17-cabin wooden boat was excellent. A roomy cabin with comfortable beds and our own private balcony to watch the world go by in complete solitude. It was amazing the difference of the frenticism and noise of Hanoi to this peaceful wonderland, a glimpse of the contrasts of amazing Vietnam.