Excited to move onward from Hanoi and continue our Vietnam adventure, greeting our third morning abroad, we hopped on a shuttle bus from our hotel and headed to the tourist-infused Halong Bay, an UNESCO World Heritage Site situated in Northeastern Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin, Quang Ninh Province.
Consisting of majestic limestone rocks jutting from the water, there are nearly 2000 islands, some containing enormous caves, hiking trails, lagoons, fishing villages and most of all, a peaceful solitude in the midst of nature.
Organized by our hotel concierge that we felt it was a reliable source for bookings, we planned to do a one night / two day cruise on a smaller boat with 14 other passengers. The three hour bus ride (which was more like five) deposited us off at a port filled with travelers waiting to board one of the hundreds of options before us. We were led to a smaller passenger boat that then took us to our main cruise boat.
Since the start of our planning the trip, Halong Bay was one place that we kept hearing about and was highlighted as a must-do. The photos depict why it’s a definite must-see. It certainly did not disappoint.
When we boarded our ‘vintage’ four-star cruise, we were a little skeptical of our green-turfed boat that looked like it was in dire need of a little TLC. Why did we pass up the modern option, we wondered? After all they were the same price. Roughly $100 USD for the package we chose which included 3 meals.
We settled into our cabin. Later met in the dining room for a group welcome by our entertaining captain for the next 36 hours.
Lunch was served. We indulged in fresh shrimp, rice paper vegetable spring rolls and a delectable fish soup. We lingered for a while enjoying the cross breezes through the open air dining room where we chatted with our new boat-mates, a friendly Australian couple.
To my delight, shortly after lunch, we headed to an area for kayaking and swimming. I stood at the bow, inhaled the fresh calming air as the warm breeze embraced me. The afternoon sun cast brilliant shadows among the impressive formations before us.
Upon arriving closer to our kayaking spot, we boarded a smaller passenger boat again that brought us to a pier with the kayaks. My only regret was that I didn’t take my phone or camera with me. I’m usually pretty good about bringing a camera everywhere, especially in precarious situations in order to get the shot. However, I noticed the modular kayaks that you step down into and sit inside of that I hadn’t used before. For the first time I was unsure of the vessel’s stability and I didn’t have a water proof case with me. Duh. Lesson learned.
This was one of my favorites parts of the experience. Paddling on the bay through the limestone cliffs, I decided to get a little workout in and challenge myself while I had the chance. Our speed took us far away from the rest of the crew but close enough to hear them, if needed. We came upon a dark cave. As we inched our way through the darkness, we turned ourselves around to see the site of the bay from inside the cave. It was when two other kayakers approached us that I saw even more dimension in the layers of landscape. I had dreamt of this magnificent site of nature before me and was awestruck.
That evening I participated in a cooking class on the upper deck where we learned how to make spring rolls. Later, my companion and I lounged for a while and made new friends while dinner was being prepared. Another delicious meal with fresh fish, beef and vegetarian options served our palettes well.
As the night went on, they played music on the deck for people to dance and the same time enjoy the ambiance of the evening and boat lights around us.
Upon waking the next morning, I was looking forward to seeing the sunrise. Just before dawn, I made my way out to the bow and enjoyed the stillness and quiet hush of the early morning as the boat slowly moved through a wide channel. Initially, the landscape looked eerie and monochromatic — heavy white mist and mysterious dark mountains set the scene, like we were in a Pirates of the Caribbean movie. It was surreal.
The sun’s golden glow slowly made its way through the thick haze creating beautiful silhouettes of other boats and the cliffs themselves. As the sun rose, I continued to capture the fleeting moments through my lens.
Breakfast was soon served offering omelets, an array of fruits, muffins and cereal — not to mention the delicious Vietnamese coffee served with sweetened condensed milk. Yum.
After breakfast we headed to Sung Sot Cave (Surprising Cave). Its continued, unexpected expansiveness gives it its name. At about 10,000 meters wide, it is one of the larger and magnificent caves in Halong Bay. Lush foliage surround the steep staircase we ascended. At the top, before entering the cave, monkey sightings confronted us along with a spectacular view of the bay.
The cruise back to the main dock was warm and relaxing. We passed floating markets, locals selling goods in their paddle boats, and fisherman working their trade. The landscape continued to entice my vision, this time, with vibrant color and contrast.
May the beauty of Halong Bay serve as a reminder to seek the soulful wonderments in nature.
Stay tuned for the next adventure: Exploring the backroads of rural Nihn Binh, Vietnam.
For more travel photos and stories, visit www.marycarolfitzgerald.com.