Travel: Nature’s majestic monuments Ha Long Bay in Vietnam
15:24 29 March 2015
UNESCO World Heritage site Ha Long Bay, in northern Vietnam, is an alluring and breathtaking spectacle, says Jon Dean
There are some places you go to, very few and far between, where the sheer unadulterated majesty of nature is almost literally breathtaking. Spots that seem so ethereal and far removed from normal life you have to pinch yourself to make sure it’s not a dream.
The UNESCO world heritage site of Ha Long Bay in north eastern Vietnam really is one of those places – a vast maze of mysterious islands jutting from lurid, emerald green waters to create a stunning seascape of epic proportions.
Getting there is no piece of cake however – it’s a bit of a trek even when you make it to ‘Nam, albeit an incredibly enjoyable one.
First stop, the ancient city of Hanoi – an oriental metropolis at its finest. Impossible numbers of motorbikes zoom here and there, street hawkers shout thing you probably can’t understand and the haphazard telephone wires; I’ve never seen anything like them.
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But what a city – from the delightfully urbane French quarter to the winding chaos of the old town, it’s an exhilarating ride.
And without doubt the finest culinary destination I’ve been to – the street food scene is unbelievable. Stall after stall hidden down little lanes – get some recommendations and get cracking – two bowls of something delicious and a couple of Saigon beers will cost you less than a London bus fare.
From Hanoi, an early morning four-hour bus ride takes you to the distinctly pedestrian Ha Long City. But you probably won’t spend any time there – you’ll be ushered straight on board your chosen vessel.
In our case, the luxurious Starlight Cruise. She really was a beauty – hot tubs in the rooms, elegant dining room, bar on the top deck. It’s a great way to see the sights.
And with that, we were off – the first of many eight course meals took up the time before we began to see these incredible karst monuments looming through the mist and eerily green water.
Before our trip I’d researched Ha Long Bay a fair bit, and there’s no question it looks amazing in the sunshine, but during our visit, in early April, the rolling fog gave the bay a quiet, contemplative, almost supernatural air.
After dropping anchor, we headed to Sung Sot Cave, also called Amazing Cave and with good reason. Annoyingly crowded, it was still possible to appreciate the scale and beauty of this stone cathedral.
Then kayaking was a great opportunity to do some solo exploration. Heading off on your own you could row through isolated caves and end up in some tranquil, hidden oases with no company but the monkeys who inhabit the cliff tops. Back on board for another long, drunken meal, which resulted in some night caps on the starboard bought with new-found friends.
Then up before dawn for some top deck tai chi as the sun came up, which is a special way to start the day.
For many, a trip to the bay is a one night affair, but we opted for a 48 hour stay which meant we were transferred to a day boat for a trip round neighbouring Lan Ha bay, jumping off the ship, hitting the sun loungers and a bit more kayaking. Despite the apparent desolation of the bay, indigenous sales people in rowing boats abound, selling beers, chocolate, trinkets and so on, which came in handy, though they were clearly the bane of our boat’s crew.
A fascinating trip to a pearl farm was also on offer for us two-dayers, with a demonstration of how they induce the oysters to create their riches – though I wasn’t particularly tempted to part with my hard earned dough.
Despite our second night being dominated by an Australian school trip enjoying a lively karaoke party, it was once again a thoroughly enjoyable evening, helped by our incredibly luxurious cabin where we retreated when things got too much.
Our final bit of sightseeing was perhaps the most impressive; the Cua Van floating village.
A township of around 200 abodes, housing perhaps 800 villagers on the water, some 20km away from the harbour.
Rather than the ancient civilisation you might expect, the village was formed at the beginning of the 19th century when rising water levels forced people from the mainland.
It’s an incredible site – families living in one room floating houses, some of which, unbelievably, have TVs and radios in them, alongside schools and fish farms. We definitely weren’t in Kansas anymore.
And with another massive luncheon as we drifted back through the spires, it was time to bid farewell to the captivating Bay, which I have no problem whatsoever in recommending as a ‘must do’ adventure.
Obviously you won’t fly half way across the world just for a 48-hour cruise.
But luckily Vietnam is chock full of amazing places and well worth taking the time for a two (or three) week trip.