Exotic Destinations: Halong Bay Vietnam
Vietnam is a small country dominated by a huge coastline. Its narrow, S-shaped slip of land stretches between the Mekong Delta in the south and the Red River Delta in the north and meets the South China Sea in a dramatic one and a half thousand mile sweep of beautiful beaches, traditional fishing villages, impressive headlands and island-filled bays. Halong Bay is a huge body of calm water containing thousands of fantastically-shaped limestone islands. It rivals Thailand’s Phang Nga bay as SE Asia’s best tropical kayaking destination.
Sunset over Halong Bay off the northeast coast of Vietnam creates a scene that defines the Orient. The silhouetted limestone columns, which rear out of the sea from the slenderest of bases, assume such perfection of proportion and form as to mock all man-made sculpture as artless imitation. For centuries the harmony of this seascape has inspired a whole school of Vietnamese painting. To drift in a junk beneath the yawning overhangs and watch the fading light transform rock peaks and fringing jungle foliage into giant figurines is, for a few short moments, to become part of an ageless Asian picture.
A Kayaking Dream Come True - Halong Kayak trip
After the good-natured crew of Dragon One had welcomed us aboard and loaded our double kayaks onto the cabin roof, we set off, away from Bai Chay and into another world. And what a world it turned out to be. My sense of wonder and awe at the place steadily increased as we paddled amid towering islands wreathed in thick, tumbling vegetation, explored spectacular sea arches, pretty rock gardens, dramatic caves and golden ribbons of beaches. The guide’s excellent navigational skills were essential in such a complex landscape. After hours in the kayaks we would return to the support boat, which had a large, covered deck with tables and benches where we could relax and socialize, and to a cook who had been sent to us from heaven. Lien, as well as being blessed with beauty and a sweet disposition, had the gift of being able to whip up eight course banquets in a tiny galley area, over two kerosene burners. At mealtimes cries of delight could be heard from the boat as one superb dish after another was placed before us. The best seafood imaginable - lobster, prawns, crab, an array of fish, as well as delicate spring rolls, fragrant soups, stir-fried meat and vegetables, all exquisitely prepared. As we ate, we could gaze out at a stunning panorama of islands that stretched endlessly in all directions, beckoning us to go further into the bay, to discover its deep secrets and ancient mysteries.
One day we kayaked into a misty sunrise. Ahead, through the mist, strange shapes had begun to materialize. Limestone rocks rose sheer from the water up to several hundred feet. They were strangely humped and angled, patterned with fissures, caves and arches and improbably covered with trees. As we moved past them, more and more appeared, in serried ranks stretching back into the fog, as if some clever trick with mirrors were creating the illusion of hundreds of these surreal islets. But there were hundreds of them, creating a mysterious scene straight from some ancient Oriental painting and giving credence to the legends about this enormous bay: that its islands were formed from jewels spat out by dragons, and that sea monsters still lurk in its waters.
Towards the end of our third day of gentle three-hours-a-day paddling, we came across a small temple on a sand beach at the base of a cliff. Colourful paper boats hung from its low ceiling. On its altar, brass pots bristled with incense sticks and plates were heaped with offerings of fruit, cigarettes and money left by passing fishermen. One by one, our crew of six added to these offerings, then lit incense sticks and stood with them between their palms, bowing towards the altar and praying. Silently and a little self-consciously, we also paid our respects to the spirits and dragons of the sea, leaving our Western offerings behind - dollar bills, candy bars and cookies. This scene was to be re-enacted several times over the coming days, as we discovered more shrines, tucked away on beaches amid thick vegetation, all with evidence of having been recently visited by fishermen.
Fishing families in Halong Bay live aboard their small, simple boats, which are built from woven bamboo caulked with tar. Often, the boats are rafted up together to form floating 'villages'. Paddling between islands, we frequently came across these villages, where smoke rose from charcoal burners, radios played, dogs barked at us from the decks of boats and older children shouted excitedly while their younger siblings peered fearfully around the low straw canopies.
At times, our senses were overloaded by what Halong Bay offered us. On our fourth day we paddled into a low tunnel which led beneath the rock cliff of a towering island. At the far end of the tunnel was a pinprick of light. Ducking beneath stalactites and fending off bulging walls with our paddles, we manoeuvered towards it. The beams from our head torches were swallowed up by the shadowy depths and our nervous laughter echoed around us. Gradually, the light expanded, grew in brightness and shimmered on the water. Presuming we had paddled right beneath the island, I expected us to re-emerge into Halong Bay and see the now familiar vistas. Instead, we had paddled into the very heart of this limestone island, which over centuries had been eaten away by water and wind until it was perfectly hollow and open to the sky.
A profound silence fell over our group as, kayak by kayak, we emerged, blinking, from the dark tunnel into a lagoon enclosed by a circle of sheer walls. The air was still and hot. The only sound was the ringing cry of a solitary bird, hidden somewhere in the dense, hanging vegetation. We floated in jade-coloured water; above us, framed by sharp rock, the sky was pale, the sun masked by clouds. I hardly dared breath, afraid of breaking the spell cast by this ethereal garden, this untouched and perfect place. It would have been easy to stay there for hours, but the tide was creeping up and soon the tunnel would be sealed by water. As we left, I thought of the vastness of this marvelous bay and how on this and future trips there was so much more to discover - shrines, beaches, caves, tunnels, lagoons inside islands - and who knows what else?
After kayaking back to our boat we sailed until sunset and, after dropping anchor in a secluded cove, stretched out on deck to watch meteors flash across the night sky. Out in the bay, lights from squid fishermen bobbed on the horizon like fallen stars. Behind us, moonlit rock giants towered over the still waters and silver beaches in timeless repose. In the dark silence, Halong Bay held onto its beauty.
Click here for vacation Thailand