Ha Long means ‘descending dragon’ in Vietnamese. Gazing out across the green South China Sea* at the silhouettes of thousands of islands rising steeply from the water, its easy to think you could be in ancient land of dragons and fairytales. Without a doubt, the bay is one of the most stunning natural vistas I’ve ever seen. We spent much of our time gawping at the soaring greenery-topped rocks from which nature has cut dark caves and yellow beach coves over millions of years. The vast majority of the 2000-odd islands truly meet the definition of tropical, uninhabited and oozing lush green vegetation out of every crack in their craggy slate-grey core. I think the most surprising thing is that they rise so steeply out of the water, like the grey fingers of some unseen giant’s hand beneath the surface. Interestingly, the shape of the islands isn’t caused by the waves – at water level, you can see where the cliffs have been eroded by the ebb and flow of the tide, causing only a small overhang of a few metres – not the sheer vertical sides that define them. These instead have been formed from the geology of the region which left a thick layer of limestone deposits of hard and soft rock. The soft stuff has since been eroded by the wet climate, leaving the harder bits to form islands.
We’d joined a tour from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay for three days and two nights to take in the scenery, staying the first night on our boat in a fantastic cabin, and the second in a hotel on Cat Ba Island, the nicest we’ve been to in the three months we’ve travelled. We spent quite a while reading reviews before settling on ODC Travel as our tour operator. This is not a place to scrimp on spending; with attitudes to safety not what they are back home, some of the boats are of questionable seaworthiness – earlier this year a tourist junk sank in the bay in calm seas, claiming the lives of 12 people on board. I’m sure you’ll be relieved to know our boat was impeccably well maintained and after taking the trip, we’d recommend it to anyone.
Our tour took in a cave, which was deep and impressive – although overrun by hundreds of other tourists also visiting it. It was one of the few times we’ve really experienced queueing here in Asia, with a tailback up the steps to the cave. We also had some adventure activities on the schedule, where we got to try our hands at kayaking, and, I guess, our legs at cycling.
The diversity in activity was matched by a similar range in weather; overcast on the first day, rain on the second, and then finally a blast of sun as we headed home to the mainland at the end, giving us the chance for a quick swim in the sea off the back of the boat. Cycling between paddy fields in the midst of the downpour was certainly an experience, after which we were sufficiently damp that a second kayaking outing in the rain seemed like an obvious choice. The others in our group weren’t quite so sure, choosing to remain inside the warm and dry of the boat, but we were pleased with ourselves when we returned victorious from our voyage to an interesting looking outcrop in the distance – photo above.
Our night on Cat Ba Island was a fun break from the water. I might be pushing things here, but it felt a bit like a tropical version of the Isle of Wight. Ok, so the Isle of Wight doesn’t have a UNESCO protected nature reserve (although The Needles are quite fun), but in season, it does have boatloads of tourists (fortunately we were out of season), and a small road network which slightly undermines the charm of the place. There’s also a big fishing industry here, the bay in front of Cat Ba Town full of identikit trawlers in a uniform of blue and red, which at night resemble more of an eighties disco as they all turn on their neon florescent lights with which they work by. The island also has a splash of sparkling white beaches, strung together by a lovely cliff path running round a peninsula. As you can see in the photo below, we were entertained to see the route ahead somewhat impassible where it once continued round to the third beach – after debating our rock climbing skills, we decided to give a miss.
The only sad thing about the trip was that the weather wasn’t better while we were there, as it wasn’t warm enough to spend the afternoon on the sand, and the spectacular sunrises and sunsets we’d been promised in the bay were hidden by cloud. However, invigorated by exercise, sea air and natural beauty, we feel all set to return to do battle with the clamour of Hanoi, taking a break from the sea again until we get to down to Cambodia in time for Christmas.
*Unsurprisingly, they don’t call it