Halong Bay was one of a very small number of things I had on my absolute must-do list before I left for this trip, the rest I was sure we would figure out as we went, picking up pieces of advice along the way and generally following our noses. But after dreaming about visiting Halong Bay for months, it seems strange to finally be here. It’s always a slight worry that something you are really looking forward to may disappoint you when it finally arrives, the anticipation overpowering the reality. But Halong Bay quite certainly does not fall into this category. Here we are; floating around bliss, the sound of crickets and a paddle slipping through the water, the occasional rustle of the trees and a monkey laughing. Just us, our kayak and the water; enclosed within the green-coated embrace of the cliffs, under the safety of the blue skies overhead. Utterly serene and cheerful to say the least. This really is somewhere I would recommend to anyone, even if you just come for a day, if you are in Vietnam this
is a definite must-see.
‘Halong’ translates into “where the dragon descends into the sea” and legend has it that this incredible geographical phenomenon was createdwhen a dragon charged down a mountain and plunged into the sea, carving out valleys with its tail and leaving holes with its feet on its way down, and overflowing the sea to fill in the gaps. And although there is an actual geographical answer as to how this seascape was formed (a quick Google search tells me the answer is karst erosion), the area is so mystical that the legend does not seem that hard to believe. It is unsurprising that the bay was named a World Heritage Site in 1994, however this has meant that it is vastly popular with tourists all year round and can apparently sometimes become a little over crowded.
The wind- and wave-created caves inside these outstanding floating mountains are filled with their own myths which tell of various creatures that were “petrified and turned to rock”, including a low-lying tortoise whose head is worn and shiny from all the hopeful passers-by who stroke it for good luck. We stroke it’s head just in case – you never know when you might need an extra little bit of luck. Later, by the light of the moon we try our (very inexperienced) hands at fishing seemingly non-existent clams off the back of our boat, the elusive creatures avoiding our bamboo fishing rods at all costs. We don’t even come close. Eventually we give up and instead stretch out on the deck of our boat, watching the stars glistening above us, winking at us as a storm brews over the top of one of the mountains in the distance… Little did we know that this storm would throw itself down onto our boat in the early hours of the morning, it’s fury still beating down as we made our way up the side of one of the mountains to a viewing point overlooking the bay.
Still, the storm passes by late morning, just in time for our arrival on Cat Ba island, and a road slightly less trodden by the backpacking troupe. We embark on what our guide playfully calls a “little hike” through the jungle, up to the top of Tip Top mountain in the middle of Cat Ba National Park. The well-made path soon turns to clambering over rocks and branches, and my legs get eaten alive by hungry mosquitos, and it is surely too hot to be ascending up such a steep path? But the jungle is alive with energy and bursting with beauty and soon enough we reach the top, soaked in sweat and satisfaction. The view is truly breath-taking, and once again I have fallen in love with the Vietnamese countryside.
On the other side of Cat Ba island are 3 small sandy beaches, each tucked away in its own little alcove and each one just as beautiful as the last. Here is where we spend a lazy afternoon, soaking up some of the sun’s loving rays and paddling in the sea, whose waves are somewhat less loving, if not a little alarming given the serenity of the island. When the sun goes down, the coast of Cat Ba turns into some strange sort of miniature Disneyland, with neon lights and fairground music in almost every direction. It is slightly bizarre but the food is great and the watermelon mojito even better.