The glorious Halong Bay

Trip Start Sep 01, 2010
Trip End Jun 18, 2011

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Saturday, June 4, 2011

After spending a few days in Hue we moved on to our final destination in Vietnam, the northern capital city of Hanoi. I'll explain all about our first few days in Hanoi in the next blog, but for now I’m going to skip forward a few days and tell you about our trip out to the incredible Halong Bay. During our time here in Vietnam we haven’t had many activities planned, however since the earliest moments of planning this trip we have been itching to get to Halong Bay. Halong is a UNESCO World Heritage Site of huge importance and significance to us, we’ve been to quite a few UNESCO sites on this trip but this is definitely the most important. It’s almost impossible to describe Halong Bay adequately but I’ll give it a go. Halong Bay is a collection of almost 2000 limestone cliffs and mountains that are situated out at sea; you have to sail about 2 hours out into the ocean before you come face to face with row after row of cliffs jutting up out of the sea. The best way I can think to describe them it to say they look like a scene out of Jurassic Park… only at sea!

Once we had arrived in Hanoi we went to a local travel agents and booked a 1 night/ 2 day tour out to Halong Bay on an old Chinese junk boat. We were really excited but a little bit nervous to see what the boat would be like; the trip was quite expensive (by Asian standards) so we were anxious about getting value for money. But we hadn’t of worried at all! We were picked up in a mini-bus by our tour guide and driven to Halong Bay, which is about 4 hours away. On the way we noticed another mini-bus from our tour company which was packed with drunk backpackers (it was only 8am) and we started to panic that we were going to end up on a 2 day booze-cruise which, considering how much money we had paid, we wouldn’t have been happy with. When we arrived at the Halong Bay dock we quickly realized that we weren’t going to be on their boat and we relaxed a little. The boat we were going on could hold 24 people but there was only actually going to be 12 people on our trip, which everyone was really pleased about. Because our boat was quite large it couldn’t dock at the harbour so we had to get a little taxi-boat out to the junk. On the way we got our first glimpse of the limestone monoliths and islands. In the distance we could see a row of tall, jagged islands covered in greenery and behind them innumerable rows of shadowy cliffs descending into the horizon. It was an amazing sight to behold.

As we approached our junk boat for the first time Tom and I couldn’t stop grinning at each other. It was perfect! A huge, old, dark wood, Chinese junk boat with two decks and traditional carvings all along the bow. We couldn’t have been any happier. Onboard we were shown to our room for the night; it was an old fashioned Chinese room with golden paintings on the walls and calligraphy carved into the doors and woodwork. We were almost doing cartwheels! We set sail a few minutes later and started sailing towards the maze of limestone islands that would be our home for the next two days. We went for a look around the boat and immediately started chatting to all the lovely people who were also onboard. We weren’t to know it at the time, but by the time we were to return to Hanoi we would have made some amazing friends with our fellow guests. Before too long we were all getting along like a house on fire and Tom and I were having a brilliant time getting to know everyone on board. We were called to lunch a few minutes later and we sat down to a fantastic lunch. Regardless of the fact the chef was cooking in a kitchen the size of an airing cupboard the food was phenomenal! We had more food than we knew what to do with, including BBQ prawns, veggie soup, salad, stir-fried squid, rice, pork escalope, Thai fish cakes, baked tuna steaks and fruit salad. By the time we had finished eating and chatting we had arrived in a cove surrounded by islands and cliffs. Our camera took quite a battering as we took hundreds of photos! The cliffs were just amazing; it was like being in the middle of a huge mountain range which had been flung into the furthest recesses of the ocean.

The boat anchored here for the remainder of our trip and we used the little taxi-boat to move between the different sites. Next on our itinerary was a visit to a local cave-system which has excellent views of the bay. So we were ferried over to the cave and we started the climb up into the entrance; the cave was crammed with tourists but luckily our guide pulled us all to one side and we managed to avoid the majority of the big crowds. In the previous blog I had mentioned that we’d met two photographers in Hue, while we had been chatting to them about our trip to Halong Bay they had recommended the views from this cave and, now that we were here, they certainly didn’t disappoint! Elevated up above the bay we had magnificent views of the cliffs and other junk boats and we would have been more than happy to stay there all day. We descended into the cave and the cool air inside was a huge relief. We hadn’t really expected much from the caves but they turned out to be one of the most incredible sights imaginable! There were three caves and the third one was simply humungous. They looked like something out of a movie. There were three Kiwis in our tour group and we ended up reminiscing with them about how much these caves reminded us of the caves in northern New Zealand. It was an incredible experience and one which we will never forget.

From here we were ferried over to one of Halong Bay’s many floating villages. There is an ethnic Vietnamese group which live out at sea in floating houses and, unless they need medical help, they never set foot on dry land (kind of like the sea-gypsies of Thailand and Malaysia). Their houses are set on top of floating barrels which are lassoed together to make a floating foundation for their homes; these people can live in their houses all year round, including during the monsoon season when villages of up to 300 floating houses are tied together to make them more rigid and to enable the villagers to quickly move between the house and help anyone in need. The authentic floating villages are very far out at sea, so far out that our tour guide had never actually been there, and the floating village which was in our cove was made up of regular people from the mainland who had decided to move out to sea. Even though it sounds like a crazy lifestyle the people who have moved from the land to the sea actually have a better life at sea because they make lots of money selling trinkets, drinks and snacks to tourists and have very good health because they aren’t exposed to the pollution of the city. We boarded a small dock at the floating village and got the chance to see some of the local ladies fishing from holding pens built into the walkways. It was very strange being in the floating village because I couldn’t stop thinking about an episode of TopGear that I’d watched before we left home; in it they motorcycle all the way from Saigon in the south up to Halong Bay and then have to make their way to a floating village and as we walked around all I could think of was Jeremy Clarkson sitting having a beer with his feet dangling into the water. At the floating village we were shown to a collection of kayaks and we were lucky enough to get the chance to go sea-kayaking in-between the limestone islands! We were out on the water for about half an hour and got up close to the small caves that weaved in and out of the rock. The towering cliffs bore down on us and made us feel so tiny and insignificant. The current of the ocean wasn’t too strong and we all managed to follow our tour guide without anyone falling in; we had an amazing time and every now and then we would bump into each other and fall about laughing. We got to see some huge sea-buzzard/eagle type of birds swooping down into the ocean, plucking fish out and soaring off back to the cliffs and their nests.

Back on the junk boat some of the guests went for a swim in the sea but we decided that the water looked a little bit murky and dirty so we gave it a miss; the boat staff ended up jumping off the top deck into the sea and before too long all the swimmers were flinging themselves off the deck while the rest of us enjoyed the sunset with a drink and some more fruit salad. Once everyone was out of the water our tea was served and it was another roaring success; this meal included fresh tiger prawns, soup, stuffed crabs (amazing!), peppered chicken, breaded tofu, salted braised fish and rice. We finished eating at about 8pm but sat around chatting with a group of people on board and when we next checked our watches it was almost midnight! The time had flown by and we had got on really well with four of the other guests, so we all decided to sit up on the top deck and look at the stars for a while; the boat staff turned off all the lights for us and we got a great view of the stars…we haven’t seen a night sky that good since back in New Zealand!

The following morning we woke up really early because we wanted to watch the sunrise over the limestone islands, however when we woke up at 5am and looked out the window it was really foggy so we decided to go back to bed for a few hours. Later we had breakfast and headed out in the taxi-boat to a thin tall island which has a temple perched on the top. Our guide told us that we could climb to the top but it was 450 steps high, which might not sound too bad but in 35 degree heat it was a killer of a hike. Everyone on the boat decided that they wanted to give it a go and after much sweating and panting we all made it to the top of the cliff and the temple. The views were worth every agonizing step. From here Halong Bay spread out in front of us in mile after mile of gloriousness! The furthest islands were mere shadows on the horizon and I had to pinch myself to believe I was really here. When you see things like this you almost want to laugh at how amazing and ridiculous and dramatic and simply wonderful the world can be sometimes. Sometimes it’s good for your soul to be confronted with so much happiness and beauty, there is something really humbling and uplifting about it all. The climb back down was actually more difficult that the ascent because the steps were so wobbly and uneven but we all made it down in one piece and headed back to our junk boat. From here we started our long journey back to the mainland. On the way we all ended up separating off into our own little spaces to soak in our last few moments in the bay; without anyone needing to say anything we all ended up sitting in silence for a while just looking and thinking. Later we had our final lunch on the boat and before we knew it we had reached the harbour and it was time to leave our junk boat and drive back to the city.

The drive back was long because everyone was tired and we got stuck in a rainstorm of monsoonal proportions. Back in the Hanoi we all said our goodbyes and promised to keep in touch. We had actually made such good friends with some of the guests that we arranged to go out for some dinner together later that evening. It turned out to be a brilliant night and it really lifted our spirits to think that we had made a new group of friends to spend time with all these thousands of miles away from home. Our night out with friends was great, the food was brilliant and Tom was especially happy because he got to share some weird and wonderful dishes with fellow meat-eaters… steamed giant snails and deep-fried whole sparrow birds anyone? Tom assures me they tasted nice but I wasn’t so sure!     
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Dad on

Brilliant! Is this where the man with the golden gun was filmed? What a place, what an awesome experience for you. Tremendous photo's for us to share yet again, many thanks. Pinky and Perky !!!

rach on

hello , loved all the pix on this one xx
ps , no not all, the snails and tom eating the birds made me feel a bit ill lol !

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