Limestone Dragons: Ha Long Bay
One of the natural wonders of the world. One of those places you see pictures of in encyclopedias as a child. One could call it a bay, but that wouldn’t really capture it. Ha Long Bay, in Vietnamese “descending dragon bay,” is one of those places that photos don’t do justice. Thousands of limestones gut into the sky out of the water as far as the eye can see. The clouds move low and the sun dances, creating shadows and different colors of light throughout the day.
Ha Long Bay is a heavily touristed spot. Only a few hours from Hanoi, there are plenty of tour agencies and hotels that will book you a cruise. We choose the Bai Tu Long Junk. Junks are the name of the regular wooden boats that cruise the bay. There are also luxury cruise ship boats. Old photos show beautifully painted boats, but a new government regulation changed all of this last year. Now, all tourist boats must be painted white. Our guide said he thought this change was implemented after several people drowned on a sketchy tour boat.
Because of the heavy inflow of tourists, there are plenty of boat vendors who paddle around and sell everything from bottled beer and wine to shells.
However, with many tourists always comes a downside. When we went swimming, I noticed streams of trash floating by. So while having to dodge giant jelly fish, I was also watching out for plastic bottles. If Ha Long Bay is to remain a tourist destination and a naturally beautiful spot, there will have to be more stringent regulations on keeping the place clean. This is a huge problem I’ve complained about a lot in Indonesia this past year, so I was sad to see this in Vietnam as well.
Our cruise included a stop at a cave, Hang Sung Sot. The cave was incredible with very interesting and imaginative stories behind various shapes and formations. Expect plenty of tourists here and don’t worry about carrying a flashlight of your own because many sections of the cave are lit in various colors.
After some kayaking near the cave and a look at some of the floating villages nearby, which were more like house boats, we sailed and stopped off at the Pearl Village. Although this was clearly a sales pitch, it was very interesting to see how pearls are farmed and grown. Growing a perfect pearl is a mix of luck and nature, so that explains the high price of pearl jewelery. What amazed me most, however, was that in the middle of nowhere in Ha Long Bay, the Pearl Village took Visa. Now if that’s not a commercial waiting to happen…
After parking for the night, we enjoyed a delicious seafood dinner. The boat food was tasty and a nice Aussie couple shared their wine with me. It was interesting to talk with the other people on the boat including Australians and a Swiss family.
The next day clear skies gave way to huge storm clouds and my parents got a taste of what a Southeast Asian rain storm looks like. And, well, they are impressive. Nothing else like it.
Getting There: Only a few hours from Hanoi, book your tour in Hanoi to get transportation there and back. Or continue on to some of the less visited bays.