Islands in the mist

Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 30, 2009

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Flag of Vietnam  , Quảng Ninh,
Sunday, December 11, 2005

Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of those 'have to go' places in Vietnam, but one which I was rapidly running out of time to fit in. Commitments in Hong Kong were pressing and the weather was not looking too nice for a trip to the seaside, but I decided on an overnight tour anyway - praying that the overland transportation situation to Hong Kong would work in my favour.

So off I went to Halong, via the regional centre of Haiphong. The trip east from Hanoi did not do much to inspire confidence in my choice - a mixture of pollution and heavy fog blanketed a largely industrial landscape. Kilometres of joint-stock company factories and warehouses gave way to mining operations in the process of raising the various limestone outcrops we drove past. Sellers of round swiss cheese style coal bricks lined their wares up along the roadside, and a black tinge coated the buildings and fields as our bus hurtled past.

I was seriously considering a request to cut my tour to a day trip in order to get on the road to China earlier, but in the end was glad I didn't do so.

We eventually made it and after a functional lunch on the mainland, boarded one of the distinctive flat bottomed boats that ply these relatively calm waters. Around 2,000 limestone islands dot these waters, but we could see no more thn a handful at a time as we journeyed out into the bay. Fog and mist descended further as the armada of tourist boats streamed all around us, but it wasn't long before we cruised into the bay of a reasonably large island and disembarked for our first adventure.

The Paradise Pavilion is an awesome cavern within this island, only about 30 minutes motor from the mainland. We climbed up a short but steep staircase to get to it, and were rewarded with one of the best caves I have ever seen. The limestone inside is pure white and the tasteful pastel lighting sets off a variety of interesting and dramatic formations that must have been percolating for many millions of years.

It's hard to illustrate these in photos that give the viewer little idea of size, depth and scale. It was even hard to do this as eye witness, but I believe the cavern roof was around 20 or 30 metres above head height, and the twisting path through the cave was probably a few hundred metres in length. There was so much to see and photograph that it took us a good 45 minutes to see it all. I just wanted to turn around and go through again, backwards.

I didn't however, opting for a Coke outside as my camera's xD card recovered from the beating it was put through. Half of the photos didn't work out too well as photography in dark places with out very still hand is difficult, however those that did will serve the memory well. This was a great stop and the rest of the tour had a lot to live up to.

Next stop was the Cave of the Stakes, another large cavern which the previously mentioned 13th century national hero Tran Hung Dao (see Saigon entry) used to prepare wooden stakes to be used in one of the decisive battles he fought with the crazed Mongol general Kublai Khan. According to the legend, once the stakes were prepared they were set in neighbouring waters just below high tide level, then Mongol ships were lured into the area and wrecked on the stakes as the tide went out. Gnarly.

The cave itself is large and impressive, with some beautiful stalagmite formations up to 20 metres in height, however was a bit bland and natural after the magnificently mood-lit Paradise cave just visited, so after 20 minutes walking the internal path we bailed out and headed back to the boat.

Not long after hitting the high seas again we hove into view of the first of a number of floating villages found in this peaceful part of the world. It was the first I had seen located on a sea, the others all being found on lakes of the region. The villages had found a peaceful place to set up shop and I suppose they aren't affected in these protected waters by the typhoons that seem to hit the South China Sea and coastal regions further to the north. They looked pretty well ensconced here anyway...

Houses themselves are quite elaborate affairs, clad against the environment and apparently with a number of rooms and many mod cons. We visited a fisherman's house and had a peek inside. The TV was on and everyone was lounging comfortably whilst we checked out the fish storage pens outside. Wedge-tailed eagles had also made the area home, no doubt due to some fine and easy dining on fishing offcuts regularly provided. A number were wheeling about overhead which was nice.

I also took a quick launch ride through some low caves opening out to some amazing closed lagoons. Some of the islands must be donut shaped because apart from these tiny cave openings, there is no way of accessing the inside. The surrounding rock formations were pretty spectacular - as were the numerous islands that we cruised by through the fog all that afternoon - and I can easily imagine that this place would be truly magnificent in summer when the weather is fine and the skies are blue. Some other time then but the foggy covering made for a remarkable experience anyway.

We anchored somewhere for the evening and had a great dinner followed by an early retirement to sleep once again on the gently rocking ocean. About the only bummer was the generator starting up a 5.30am, right next to my cabin, so a sleep in wasn't to be.

Next entry -> Long march through China to Honkers

Great Brands of the World - Vietnam

Most brands in Vietnam are western brands or rip-offs of western products. None are particularly inspiring unfortunately, even after two weeks of keeping an eagle eye out.

The most memorable message drummed into me here was the Communist party propaganda. Although they seem to be slowly losing their grip on power as the free market take hold, their marketing department is holding out and providing a surprisingly consistent and high impact image wherever you go in the country (although highly concentrated in the cities).

The ubiquitous red and yellow banners, star and hammer and sickle flags are supported by a multitude of special interest billboards featuring patriotic designs designed by a team of young Roy Lichtenstein pop art aficionados.

I have no idea what any of them say, but they tow a party line that is largely defunct these days. Still, propaganda often ignores reality...

Apologies for the quality of some of the images, they were taken out of the windows of various high speed buses!
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