Halong Bay Delivers all it Promises and More

by Neil Brook
Halong bay

“Halong Bay takes its name from legend where dragons descended by order of the Gods to help protect the Vietnamese from invasion. The rock formations were formed as they spat out jade and jewels which sprung up to prevent invading ships from passing.”

Yes there are millions of people and yes there are hundreds of boats however it is one of those places that takes your breath away. A friend recently quipped a view over the pyramids turned him into a morning person, Halong Bay has turned me into one. Halong Bay takes its name from legend where dragons descended by order of the Gods to help protect the Vietnamese from invasion. The rock formations were formed as they spat out jade and jewels which sprung up to prevent invading ships from passing.

Boat

Afterwards the dragons decided to stay and Halong Bay is where the mother resided with her children scattered in the bays around the area. It truth, the majestic formations are the result of tectonic movement over millions of years. Either way the results are spectacular and are now a UNESCO heritage site. There are two airports allowing access and we choose to fly into Hai Phong about two hours from Halong. Hanoi is three to four however a new highway under construction promises to cut the journey to an hour and a half and will be finished very soon.

I’ve put our itinerary together adding flights, transfers and boat separately and it falls into place seamlessly. We’re met at the airport and head off. From here the roads wind through villages, now and then opening up onto open stretches although it quickly becomes apparent that the countryside is more like a collection of towns linked together, each indistinguishable from the other. Our two hour journey threatens to turn into a marathon as our young driver is more intent on checking Facebook as we weave in and out precariously into the oncoming traffic at a snail’s pace.

Island in islands

A few polite words even though he speaks no English and the phone is relegated to the dash and we pick up speed, zooming off towards the bay. Nothing has quite prepared us for the sight that greets us although the constant procession of buses heading in the same direction should have suggested something. Hundreds of boats are lined up along the marina and anchored just off shore with shuttles ferrying people back and forth much like a D Day rescue effort without the shelling.

I’m a little apprehensive as warnings from friends flood back about overcrowding. Perhaps Halong Bay has lost its magic? The boats are on tight turnarounds as we discover on our way back two days later. We’re asked to check out of our rooms although we’re still at sea while the crew service the rooms. It’s a literally a tag team as we leave the deck and others clamber aboard. Tighter than an easyJet turnaround and that’s saying something.

Window

Our crew helps with the bags as we climb the steps down to the small boat that takes us to our home for the next two nights, tied up side by side with others. Our boat has seven cabins and others join from Hanoi as we unshackle and head out to sea. They’re accompanied by a young tour guide who will prove invaluable and for us, a welcome and unexpected addition.

I’ve chosen a room with a private deck at the back of the boat which affords the perfect vantage point as we wave goodbye to the mainland. I have so been looking forward to this. A major bucket list ticked off.

A procession of craft file out of the harbour each splintering off on its own course as the anticipated cliffs approach and any trepidation disappears. Sheers cliffs vertical to the sea rising out, trees and vines anchoring into every crevice, while others are so flat that nothing can cling to the rock face. The limestone formations are beautiful in their simplicity.

Halong bay

This is incredible. Pictures of towering limestone rocks seemingly drifting like icebergs make all the brochures and for good reason. They are stunning and surround us, each with its own personality offering their reflection on the water. Snapping panorama shots as we cruise around is to become a favourite pastime. Searching for the perfect angle is easy. They are all perfect as the light casts shadows on the green water and boats now and then, here and there, add depth of field. The seven cabins provide intimacy and privacy if required and a sun deck on the roof allows for uninterrupted views.

From the tiny kitchen below, the captain becomes the cook and produces some of the most delicious food I’ve had in Vietnam. Fresh oysters steamed with salsa are up there with the best. Stuffed crab heads with minced flesh and herbs. Green vegetables with garlic, of course. Cooked to perfection and delicious. Squid, whole fish and stir fries. Every meal different and nothing is served more this once. The food is extraordinary.

With every intention of sitting on the deck idling the hours away, jumping into kayaks and exploring adds more value to our trip than I have imagined. The islands offer more than the eye can see. In no time we are paddling through holes in the cliffs into grottos where monkeys dangle on the vines curious enough to come close as we approach but not brave enough to jump too close or put out their hands. Timing is everything as the entrance is vulnerable to the tides.

As we’re leaving the water has started to rush in. It’s a hard slog. I’d rather be on deck with a cold beer than joining the monkeys for dinner waiting for the tide to turn. I buckle down remembering my rowing training, keeping the blades at right angles allowing maximum thrust as I power though as if I’m sprinting over the final metres of a marathon where my remaining energy is mustered for the final dash. Beer one, two, three … monkeys nil.

Cave

Later we’re beaching our kayaks and climbing up into huge caves that have been chiselled out over time where stalactites drip and stalagmites climb eventually joining hands over hundreds of years. Huge cathedrals tower up with lighting and pathways making it easier to explore. Small holes allow the curious to travel a different path and climb through to meet the less adventurous on the other side. Large openings in the roof and on the sides, windows to outside, allow the sun to illuminate and birds to enter and nest.

Oyster farms produce delicious fleshy meat and others turn out pearls which take years to grow and add another dimension and education to the bay. I’m not really a fan however I now appreciative the time and effort it takes to create these jewels of the sea.

Island

“Although moored close by it’s surprisingly quiet, as generators hum in the distance, the sea a kaleidoscope of reflections with lights sparkling all around us”

During the days we are able to find little coves where we are the only boat there and at night there are gathering places where everyone drops anchor in a form of solidarity, gathering like moths to a flame in groups scattered in secluded bays. Although moored close by it’s surprisingly quiet, as generators hum in the distance, the sea a kaleidoscope of reflections with lights sparkling all around us. Every now and then when the generator is not required the silence is tempered by the wind whistling in the ears, ever so slightly. For me this is one place that I could settle into for days.

Occasionally a party boat drops anchor with music blaring and pitch imperfect singing catching the breeze. Fortunately only one on our first night and they soon tire allowing the night to once again surround us with peaceful calm and tranquility. Given all this, there is one disturbing fact. The water is calm and clear but for the debris and rubbish that floats by with monotonous regularity and disturbing quantity.

Vietnam it would seem is failing to learn the lessons of others, where once beautiful places are struggling to regain their composure as tourists come, stay and move on leaving the locals to pick up the pieces. Driving from the airport the driver tosses a bottle out of the window with little regard. Here it’s not a scattered piece here and there it’s trash floating en masse. The water is enticingly green and calm.

Beach

The thought of dropping in a wakeboard and carving up the surface is appealing until the thought of running into a floating plank or coming to grief in a pile of floating trash keeps my legs firmly planted in the deck. Although I have to admit seeing a friends recent post on Instagram carving up the water here, I kind of wish I had. Then again, the board shorts I wore for kayaking did not want to dry.

Even with the heat of a hairdryer they remained kind of slimy until rewashed twice. I’ll can that wakeboarding thought. Halong Bay is everything I had expected and more. Over 500 boats have licenses to plough the waters here, with 200 or so allowed to moor overnight and around 300 day tripping boats trucking in the tourists for a come and see, snap a photo a leave experience, before they head back to port to continue their journey back to Hanoi to end their 12 hour day. There has been a huge focus on plastic clogging up the oceans and this has really been my first experience of the enormity of the problem.

Much of the developed world may be tackling this problem however it’s a challenge for developing economies struggling to balance the benefit of growth and tourism with environment protection. It costs to protect and recycle. However education is one thing, pride and respect for the environment and for future generations is another. Too often the immediate rewards outweigh the intangible future benefits especially when they fall to someone else.

 

I can’t help but wonder that unless Halong Bay and all of Vietnam stand up and take note they may well be another victim of mass exploitation. Our tour guide tells us that they do have boats cleaning the waters and implies that because of the number of boats it’s impossible to keep the area clean. Our boat takes all its rubbish back to shore as do all of them, supposedly. He blames the local fishermen who are gradually being resettled on the mainland.

Although I struggle with this argument. People who have been fishing the seas for generations get it. Look after the environment or perish. It’s really that simple. Continuing at this rate Halong Bay will become more of a rubbish trap than it already is, which is a shame as it truly is one of the most beautiful places on earth. I really hope Vietnam will wake up before it’s too late …

Ship and island

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