Halong Bay: On a slow boat through Vietnam's most stunning landscape
Vietnam is a mouthwatering destination, says Deborah Spillane, but Halong Bay is a real highlight.
Having studied the itinerary of my full-on Wendy Wu Tour of Vietnam, I knew that by Day 10 I could be pretty tired.
So the prospect of visiting the UNESCO Heritage site of Halong Bay seemed the perfect way to finish my holiday. I could immerse myself in its stunning emerald green waters and enjoy the unique landscape that has made it so famous.
From the moment we arrived in Vietnam, we had hit the decks running. From the bustling motorbike-thronged cities, to the stunning countryside and from the tragic historical sites and monuments, to the ancient and poignant citadels and temples, we were fully immersed in the culture of the country.
Vietnam’s reputation did not disappoint. The food was wonderful and the people were as courteous and welcoming as you could hope for.
Near the end of our tour we arrived in Hanoi, home of the enormous grey Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum which contrasted somewhat with the lovely cafes and busy streets of the city with its stunning centrepiece — the magical Hoan Kiem lake.
The evening before we left we witnessed something uniquely Vietnamese — a traditional water puppet show. Rather than a stage in the theatre the show was performed from was a small elevated lake. Upon this all manner of strange tales were told by puppets apparently operated from under the water. Keeping up with the storylines was not as challenging as trying to work out how the puppeteers managed to make the puppets perform the dynamic Riverdance-like routines — while they were obviously submerged. The musical accompaniment was delightful and really held all the audience’s attention.
The next morning we set off early for Halong Bay. The drive took us out into rural Vietnam and mountain passes full of lush jungle greenery. The four-hour journey was broken by a visit to a pearl factory. I love pearls and received my first string for my 21st birthday many, many years ago. Here, everyone found a pearl in their oyster — albeit a tiny one. That thrill whetted the appetite to find bigger ones, and nearly everyone bought a memento at a great price in the shop full of treasures at the end of the tour.
Then the distinctive Halong Bay mountains drifted into view. They are truly captivating. The plan was stay overnight on the water. Our new home was a cross between a Mississippi river boat and a Vietnamese junk. My cabin was beautiful with its lovely dark wood interior, big comfortable bed, with crisp white linen sheets, and en suite bathroom. After a quick freshen up we headed for the first meal of our trip. The buffet lunch offered a great selection of dishes from Vietnamese to western, there was everything and anything you could wish for.
After sailing for two hours we dropped anchor. Immediately the silence hit us. With a balmy breeze and exotic birdsong all around us we prepared to transfer on to smaller boats to visit the floating villages dotted around the bay.
The water was so peaceful and calm, and as we puttered along in our little boat, I took in the majestic scenery — hundreds of stunning rocky outcrops emerging from the still waters, all topped with odd-shaped peaks.
These pinnacles, or pitons, call them what you will, are black limestone formations and covered partly in green foliage, and no two seem to be the same. The rocks are not habitable but some of them have caves, and we spotted a temple on one. As I had done from day one, I took endless photographs. While good, they couldn’t capture the real magic of the place.
After a while, we found ourselves weaving in and out of floating villages. These traditional floating fishing homes look idyllic and for a moment I thought I would love to live on the emerald green waters, surrounded by the intense beauty of the place. Sadly the villages are now there mainly for tourists. The old way of life is no longer tenable and the hardship and poverty and the pull of the cities have depleted its communities. Originally, families lived on boats, then began to live in little wooden houses kept afloat by rolls of bamboo. Now what houses are left are kept afloat by barrels full of air. Our boatman Thong and his family had lived on one of the floating villages all his life — the fifth generation of his family to do so — until the government moved everyone to the mainland in 2014 for safety reasons. Only one village survives, its residents subsisting on fish farming.
Inspired but moved by the visit, we headed back to our luxurious ship. Cookery lessons distracted us and then the mood picked up when the promise of squid fishing by night was mentioned over cocktails. A crescent moon and thousands of stars created stunning silhouettes of the islands. Lines and torches were the only equipment necessary for our fishing, the little squid squirting ink jets of alarm as we hauled them from the water. Any guilt was quickly forgotten as we scoffed our freshly caught calamari.
While some of our group chatted into the night I headed to my wonderful cabin with thoughts of an early morning Tai Chi lesson in mind. I slept like a top.
Although early, the Tai Chi was both graceful and restorative. While I am not saying I was graceful by any means the gentle pace did loosen any stiff muscles from the boating the day before. After a gigantic breakfast we headed by boat to Sung Sot (Surprise) Cave. As we approached the island that the cave was in its soaring peak cast a long shadow. The climb up to the cave revealed wonderful vistas of the bay while inside the enormous cavern was the biggest underground system I have ever encountered. The eerily lit strange lava-like shapes of both stalagmites and stalactites were awesome — the lakes and pools reflecting the bizarre underground world.
The two days weren’t long enough. So I will have go back to explore further. It was, however, the perfect end to my brilliant first trip to Vietnam.
The 12-day Vietnam at a Glance trip is available from €2,690pp with Wendy Wu Tours (www.wendywutours.ie, 0818 776 380). It includes all international airfares, domestic transportation, departure taxes, all accommodation, all meals, entrance fees, guides and daily tours and visa fees for UK, Irish & EU passport holders.
Guests who book before February 28 can save €300 per couple