The raison d’etre in Vietnam was to visit Halong Bay, set out in the Gulf of Tonkin. Legend has it that a dragon was sent by the Gods, to protect Vietnam from an invading navy, plunging into the sea at the Gulf of Tonkin, to his sleep, creating Halong Bay with its majestic limestone karsts rising out of the water, today’s UNESCO world heritage site.
We had booked a one night journey on a junk boat with Bhaya Cruises, which is the only way to appreciate the grandeur of Halong Bay. Take your passports with you, to Halong City before embarking your junk.
The limestone structures are visible from the minute you get in to Halong City, but seeing them up close in the gulf itself is mind boggling. The karsts rise out of emerald green waters, clouded grey with the skies above, shrouded in mist. We have come in the middle of winter and the bay is mystical, but stunning nonetheless. There are 3000 islands in the gulf, and our junk begins to navigate its way in between them.
Bhaya Cruises was recommended on TripAdvisor, and was one of the more affordable cruises we had come across. We chose the royal suite because of the promise of a deck offering a panoramic view, well worth the bumped up price because we got some stunning photographs. In terms of the cruise food – very standard fare, and in true Vietnamese fashion, served lukewarm. The staff were fantastic and make up for the less than great food – you don’t get champagne and caviar on a mid range junk, but some finesse in the middle of a stunning setting was welcome, so the complimentary bottle of champagne in our suite was a nice touch.
About two hours of sailing along the gulf, sitting on the deck and just absorbing in the scenery, we stopped to go and visit a local fishing village. This is part of the cruise and you get out of the junk and get taken in boats to the village for a tour. Life goes on in this village, built on floating plastic containers of sorts. Kids play, women cook and wash, teenagers row their boats with their feet while using their hands to check their mobile phones. It is surreal.
The tour includes a boat ride into some of the grottoes made up by the karsts, to the pearl farms, with oysters stuck onto plastic containers like barnacles on a boat.
Heading back to the junk in time for sunset, clouded with the grey skies, I am mesmerized by the way in which the light plays off the karsts. It is like poetry without any words.
We set sail for another hour, docking for the night. Sadly, M and I are the only people doing one night on the junk and so we won’t be sailing on with the cruise in the morning. We have dinner, poor M has alcohol poisoning from the horrible cocktail at CityView and isn’t able to eat at all – he didn’t miss much; the food was nothing to write home about! We did attempt night squid fishing, but didn’t get lucky and I am happy to crawl into the warm bed and drift off, in the midst of this legendary bay.
Bhaya was nice enough to arrange a private junk to take us to the grottoes and back to Halong city the next day, while the main cruise continued to Cat Ba Island for kayaking and swimming. I didn’t envy them because it was freezing cold, and while I enjoyed sailing along the mist shrouded karsts, I had no desire to jump into the cold water of the Gulf of Tonkin!
The diva in me absolutely loved the private junk; we had a private chef on board who made us a five course breakfast, and a private guide who took us to the grottoes. We were thoroughly spoiled and we loved it.
The grotto stop on the Bhaya route is the Surprise Cave, named as such because the French discovered it was a cave and said “mon dieu”…
The view from the entrance of the cave is stunning and the viewing platform is brilliant for breathing in the idyllic picture postcard setting, with Tea Pot Island in the distance, junks sailing in the alcove and the karsts rising out of the emerald green water.
The cave itself is filled with phallic looking stalactites and stalagmites that have conveniently been spot lit, and our guide points out the tiger, dragon and penguin formations as well as the “lucky Buddha” formation which I cant help but rub for luck, given our dilemma with the Thai Visa situation that I will tell you about in my next post.
Thankfully the ride back to Halong City from the Surprise Grotto is a little over an hour long, giving us time to soak in some more of the stunning landscape and marvel at the karsts and indulge in one of the most spectacular sights that mother nature has blessed this earth with.