on March 28, 2013
From the luxury of Paradise Cruises we had a number of ventures off the boat into the surrounding attractions of the bay. We were paddled around one of the "floating islands" in a small boat. Getting off the boat for the first time felt a bit of a challenge, but we easily mastered the skill and were soon sat in the small row boat. The boat held three or four people and was rowed by the oarsman who stood at the back of the boat. It was an unusual and seemingly uncomfortable position to be rowing from but we managed to get round perfectly well without any incident. The "island" was basically pontoons with sheds on them, roped together to form a cohesive unit with access from one to the other being by row-boat. When I say pontoons that implies something far more hi-tech than what we were seeing. They were made up of plastic barrels roped together. I guess it did the job adequately and it was certainly different to anything we’d seen before. On the land this would best be described as shanty town but here the colours of the barrels, the plastic tarpaulin shades, painted timbers, plastic garden chairs, and array of washing hung on the verandas made for a sensory experience. Of course it was not only the optics senses that were brought into play as we were soon surrounded on by a variety of opportunist locals trying to sell us their craft work and the babble of voices together with the smells of cooking from the residences made a interesting assault on our three senses.There was a small colourful temple built just off the shore line and of course the towering geological features rose from the waters of the bay high above us. On the water it became evident that this was the children’s play-ground and we were fascinated by a young boy who sat on a garden chair and paddled his boat with his feet. We’re convinced that he knew he was been watched but he carried off the nonchalant look with great aplomb. Our second trip from the security of the boat was to a small, but tall island with a temple on the top. Sunset was in process as we got into the small launch that would take us to the shores of this island. We then had a trek to the top of the island to enjoy what was allegedly one of the best views across the bay. Because darkness was descending on the bay we had a limited "window" to make this trip so the walk to the top was a bit of a "yomp". Camera at the ready a steady flow of tourists from our boat battled up footpath to the top. The view was as good as promised and I would have liked to enjoy the view a little longer, but we had to get back in the little remaining light and prepare ourselves for the evening meal back on the boat.The following morning we enjoyed sunrise over the bay (never as stunning as a sunset, before disembarking for our final excursion from the cruise ship to visit Sung Sot Cave. The cave is on Bo Hon Island and is perhaps the most famous cave in Halong Bay and it means Surprised or Amazing Cave. The entrance to the grotto is reached by climbing up about a hundred stone steps and as there was a steady flow of tourists from the many cruise ships in the bay the ascent was slow. It gave plenty of chances for photographing the bay and was not as strenuous as I thought it might have been. The first section of the cave is described as a Theatre Hall and there are loads of stalactites hanging from the high roof of the cave’s ceiling. A narrow passage leads to the second chamber and with the natural light flooding through the entrance it’s easy to see the cave’s features. The downside of visiting this populat cave is that tourists are almost falling over each other but with a bit of patience you could get "a viewing" without another tourist’s head in the viewfinder.Finally we descended into deepest point of the chamber referred to as the "royal garden". The geological features are artificially lit in this area and this lighting does show off the features in the best possible way. I’m sure the purist would prefer the viewing without the various coloured lights but the reality is this light show makes the cave appear almost sensational. The guide pointed out features that were said to resemble different birds and animals. I’m afraid that my imagination must have been on a different holiday because the majority of them I didn’t see. After a time I gave up trying and just enjoyed the shades and shadows of the cave, although I did think that one section resembled a futuristic city with sky scrapers and the like. I guess others saw parrots, kingfishers and hummingbirds!We didn’t explore all of the 10,000 square metres of Sung Sot Caves, but I do believe it to be one of the most interesting caves that I’ve ever seen. As we exited the cave we had a short descent down to the boat and whilst waiting for it to arrive watched the commerce around the bay – mobile shops, fishermen & in the distance the activity around the floating village that we’d visited the day before. Then it was back to Paradise Cruises & a steady journey back to the dock to complete our tour of Halong Bay. We had a great experience in near perfect weather conditions (we’ve heard of people who’ve sailed the bay & seen very little due to a heavy mist that often hangs over the bay). I’d highly recommend it.
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