Arriving in Halong City you pass a big advertising board with the words ‘vote Halong Bay as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.’ Alongside the Temples of Angkor, Halong Bay is arguably South East Asia’s premier tourist attraction. Approximately 1,553 square kilometres in size, the bay has 1969 islets that stand dramatically out of the water. It used to be a mountain rage but has since been submerged under water, leaving only the tallest peeks dry.
On the basis of a recommendation and good write ups on the internet I went with Vega Travel. It was not the cheapest, but certainly not the most expensive tour available. After one of the ships sinking in February killing twelve people, it seemed a good idea to play it safe. That said I was later told that a thorough review has taken place on all the boats, with thirteen per cent being removed for being unsafe!
At eight am I jumped into the minibus with nine other people and made the four hour trip to Halong City. Australians, Americans, Israelis and a couple of token Faroe Islanders made for great company over the two days. We arrived and were taken on a shuttle boat out to our ‘junk’. The boats are modeled on the Chinese Junks originating from 206BC! Fortunately these are a little bit newer. It had three floors. On the bottom were the rooms, all with air conditioning, the third time I’ve had this joy on my trip! The second floor was the dining and bar area, whilst the top was reserved for sun loungers. Ten or so minutes of settling in we were served a great lunch and then went up top to enjoy the scenery.
Sailing amongst the cast formations, gave a very unworldly feel. Coupled with the fog that hung over the bay, it was easy to imagine that we were explorers entering an undiscovered land. Planet of the Apes sprung to mind. After a few hours, chatting and enjoying the view we stopped off at a cave. I didn’t have huge hopes but it actually turned out to be rather wonderful. The caverns were huge, the rock formations superb. Our guide did the world wide trend of look that rock looks like… and we nodded or shook are heads. It was a really good half an hour or so exploring the three chambers.
After boarding the boat again it was time to do some kayaking. Looking around I wasn’t too enthusiastic. Every man and his dog was in the water paddling about. But our captain had other ideas. He took us away from the cave to another one twenty or so minutes away. There we had the ocean to ourselves. I teamed up with Peter and we paddled through the gap in one of the islets and ended up in a spectacular lagoon, enclosed by the surrounding cliffs. There are few more idyllic places I have visited. It was momentarily ruined when a Vietnames tourist paddle boat found us. “Where are you from?” shouted the tour guide with the help of a megaphone. We were laying in the water at this point, our feet on the kayack, laying back in the water, enjoying the buoyancy of the lifejackets. “Australia” came the reply over the other side of the lagoon. Cue lots of camera flashes as the Australian couple regretted their decision to answer the question. They soon departed and we were left with the area to ourselves. After a struggle to get back into the kayak we paddled out and around to some of the other islets. Two hours passed in a flash and we found ourselves in the middle of a shipping lane with gigantic tankers and increasingly choppy waters. With the light fading we headed back. After lunch we enjoyed a few beers under the moon light and a ship with an incredible number of fairy lights. I’m still confused as to who they were trying to impress.
The following day we sailed back to port and returned to Hanoi. I was concerned after Ninh Binh whether I’d opened my Christmas presents early and would be disappointed by Halong Bay. Thankfully I wasn’t. Is it better than Ninh Binh, I’m still not sure, but it’s certainly unique and a wonderful experience, sailing for two days onboard a luxury boat for bargain prices.