On a trip to Vietnam, also known as the Land of the Ascending Dragon, the highlight of our itinerary was Halong Bay. A four-hour drive away from the capital Hanoi, Halong Bay has gained the reputation of being a commercialised getaway for travellers. The bay, located in the Gulf of Tonkin in North Vietnam, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. But its quiet emerald green waters bespeckled with thousands of limestone islands make it entirely worth the hype.
We chose the path most taken (by travellers) and booked a two-days-one-night cruise, popularly known as junks. There are plenty of travel operators all over Hanoi offering tour packages ranging from a day trip and going up to a week at a variety of prices. Choosing the right tour can be a daunting task, especially with the internet throwing a plethora of options. We went for a mid-range junk ($85 per person) that had a promising itinerary and would group no more than 20 people.
As part of the pre-arranged tour, an air-conditioned bus arrived at 6 am to pick us up from the hotel and headed out of Hanoi’s old town, towards the port. Our cheerful tour guide narrated the folklore of Halong Bay which claims that when ancient Vietnam was being invaded, Mother Dragon (Vietnamese mythological character) came down on earth to help the locals. Along with her children, the dragon spewed large jades and emeralds across the sea. These solidified into limestone islands and islets of differing shapes and sizes, thereby creating a wall to ward off the enemy. The word Halong translates to ‘descending dragon’.
Away from the crowds
On reaching the port, we were quickly moved into our ship, a wooden junk named Moonlight. After a round of welcome drinks, we set sail and drifted through the stunning landscape that included 1,600 islands and limestone cliffs. As we took in the balmy breeze on the deck, we were glad to have escaped the hustle and bustle of the capital. An hour later, we sat down for lunch, which was an elaborate buffet ranging from Vietnamese cuisine to western dishes with special focus on seafood. We retired to our cabins to freshen up before heading to our first pit stop at Sung Sot Cave.
Sung Sot (translated as surprising ) Cave has two chambers and has been beautifully decorated with colourful lights. Our guide walked us through the different chambers and showed us the different rock formations inside the grotto. Interestingly, each of them has acquired an animal shape and added to the cave’s grandeur.
We returned to the boat only to be spirited away for our next excursion. Even though the itinerary was chockablock with activities such as cave exploring, riding bamboo boats, visiting floating villages, kayaking, swimming, tai chi lessons and cooking classes spread over the two days, one could always choose to opt out and remain on the boat. We were ferried to another location where we could swim or kayak. We chose to kayak and were swiftly allotted a canoe.
Armed with a life-jacket and wooden oar, we plunged into the emerald waters and glided past isolated caves, small beaches and steep cliffs. As we rowed further away from the main boat, the silence hit us. All we could hear was a birdsong and our oars gently gliding through the cool water. The experience was not only unique but the high point of our trip. Exhausted from rowing, we returned to the boat for a round of refreshments. Our ship dropped anchor for the night at a cove.
The next day started with tai chi lessons, which were calming and restorative. Later, we visited a pearl farm followed by a floating village. The boat houses not only looked idyllic but were inhabited by local fruit and vegetable sellers. Some of these houses were kept afloat using bamboos, while some used barrels of air. The concluding activity on the trip was a cooking class on the famous Vietnamese spring rolls.
While the last day didn’t turn out to be as exciting, our trip ended with one last magnificent view of the bay as we sailed back to the mainland and bid bittersweet goodbyes with fellow travellers with whom we’d forged a communal bond.