Ha Long Bay - How Long Can You Stay?

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by catsholiday on May 28, 2009

The legend:
Ha Long Bay - means "Bay of the Descending Dragon" in the Vietnamese language. The local folk tale says that dragons descended from heaven to help locals who were under attack by spitting jewels and jade to the sea, forming a natural fortress against invaders; these precious stones are now the lush green outcrops. After this the mother dragon settled in Ha long Bay and still protects Vietnam from the weather (the bay is usually fairly calm and protected) and also from outside invasion.

Location and History:
Halong Bay is in North Vietnam, 170 kilometres north-east of Hanoi (about 3 and a half hours driving) in the Gulf of Tonkin near the border with China. It was listed by UNESCO as a World heritage site in 1994.

Description and geography:
The bay is a mass of limestone islands, each topped with thick jungle vegetation sticking out like random lumps from the ocean.
Some of the islands have enormous caves. Hang Dau Go (Wooden stakes Cave) is the largest grotto in the Halong area. It has three chambers with large stalactites and stalagmites. There are many steps to climb to reach the grottos but they are lovely and cool after the heat of the sun outside. Inside the rock formations are quite splendid and you follow a sort of path through the chambers coming out to a splendid view of the junks in the bay beside the inevitable souvenir/ice-cream shop.

Some of the islands have floating fishing villages surrounding them which are quite charming to look at but I’m not sure I’d like to be so restricted in my ability to wander around. There is a bountiful supply of fish and seafood in the area. We had sumptuous meals while aboard our junk, seafood that would be found in luxury restaurants in most other places in the world. The Vietnamese also present their food beautifully almost as a work of art so that you almost feel a bit guilty spoiling it.

A lot of the islands have names based on someone’s interpretation of their shape; eg Voi Islet (elephant), Ga Choi Islet (fighting cock), and Mai Nha Islet (roof). Apparently nearly 1000 of the islands have been given names. There are also birds and animals including monkeys, and iguanas and others living on some of the islands.

Halong Bay and its maze of islands and channels has saved Vietnam being invaded on a number of occasions and during the Vietnam war the American Navy laid mines which are still a threat to shipping today. This little snippet of information I did not know until we were actually floating around on our junk in the bay.

Our Trip:
We had two days, one night aboard our junk. Our cabin was air conditioned and had a little en-suite bathroom. Everything you could ask for really. The main area inside was quite small with tables for eating. There was a small couch area but that seemed to be taken over by the staff which was a bit annoying but hey! The top of the junk was set up with loungers but it was far too hot to stay up there for long without being frazzled. The staff on board was very attentive and waited on us with the usual Vietnamese smile.

The first day we arrived at the quay and followed our guide over about a dozen moored junks to find ours. I’m not sure how we would have known which ours was or how to find it if we had not had Thuy with us!! We were welcomed with a drink and shown to our cabin. After a while we were joined by a French family with two young (presumably adopted) Vietnamese girls. Another French couple with older teenagers and that was our group. My French is limited so we didn’t make much conversation, just smiled politely at each other. We sailed around the bay through the various small islands while we enjoyed our lunch.

After lunch we stopped and visited Hang Dau Go before sailing on again through more splendid scenery before putting down our anchor to watch the sunset in a small baylet. There were a few other junks moored near us but they really only added to the atmosphere rather than made us feel part of a crowd. We enjoyed a few drinks watching the sunset and then had our wonderful seafood dinner. As it was dark you couldn’t see much apart from the stars and the other junks also there wasn’t really anywhere very comfy to sit, we had an early night and read in our little air-conditioned cabin.

The next morning we enjoyed a fresh fruit and Danish pastry breakfast with coffee before getting into a small boat to be rowed through a hole in a huge wall. After going through the hole we were in a completely enclosed sort of lake. This hole as the only way in and was only accessible at low tide – the previous night it has been so small you could only have swum through it. It was quite an eerie sort of feeling inside with a sort of hollow potential echo. The slap, slap of the oars on the water but otherwise very still and peaceful, until another group came in a boat with an outboard motor (there’s always someone who spoils things for others isn’t there?).
Then we were back on the junk for a leisurely sail back towards Halong town enjoying a lunch on the way back before disembarking at the quay again. Ready for our scary drive back to Hanoi.

A little aside:
About the driving in Vietnam. A bit like crossing the road, the traffic seems to wend its way in and out of each other.
At a roundabout you drive on – no filtering- and then about ten lanes of traffic, cars, bikes, vans, lorries and motor bikes all weave in and out of lanes until they get to the exit they want. If they can’t get there by weaving and winding then the horn is used. Overtaking: If the vehicle coming towards you is smaller than you ( bike or motorbike) then ignore it and overtake anyway. If the vehicle is the same size then go for it, the other one might slow down if not then it will have to go off the road onto the unmade up rough part and let you through, especially if you blow your horn too.
If it is bigger than you then it is a toss-up, if you are feeling confident then still go - he can move off the road or if really necessary you can always drop back again.
My husband is quite happy to drive in most countries but said that Vietnam was not one he would risk driving in because of these unwritten rules. So be warned I wouldn't recommend hiring a car.
This could be a tricky trip if you are disabled as you have to clamber over several junks before reaching yours and on the junk the space is VERY limited.
I can't give you prices as it was all part of the tour we booked and organised through Selective Asia www.selectiveasia.com/ ( mentioned in my Hanoi review) although I'm sure you can look up on the internet.

Sailing in Halong Bay was like being on a film set floating in a junk through spectacular scenery while enjoying seafood that would cost the earth back in U.K. I would certainly recommend the trip – pure luxury as although the cabin was small it did have its own ensuite, air-conditioning and a window to enjoy the view.

This is a great experience and I would recommend it for anyone visiting Vietnam. It could be difficult for anyone with walking difficulties as you have to jump from junk to junk to board.

Ha Long Bay (Halong Bay)
Gulf of Tonkin
Halong Bay, Northeastern Vietnam


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