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How Long in Halong Bay?

Not enough!

overcast 28 °C

We set off from Hanoi on Monday morning and drive the hundred miles or so to Halong Bay, well known for its dramatic rock formations set in the beautiful emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. The bay covers more than 600 square miles, and comprises almost 3,000 islands. Legend has it that the bay's dramatic landscape was created by dragons sent by the Gods to help the Vietnamese defend themselves from Chinese invaders.

While the dragons were allegedly successful in keeping the invaders out, the Gods apparently failed to foresee that their actions would - many years later - attract an even more aggressive and numerous invader. Tourists today flock to the UNESCO World Heritage site en masse and it's easy to see why. Our overnight experience on the Bay easily moved into our World Trip Top Ten, probably within the first hour of getting on the boat!

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The pier was simply groaning with tour groups. We weren't quite climbing over each other to find our charter, but we did have to make our way across two other boats in order to board! The harbour was a hive of activity with fruit, vegetable and junk food vendors in tiny row boats weaving their way ominously between large junks that could crush them like matchsticks at any moment. This isn't a harbour where you wait for a space. You simply rev your engine and push everything else out of the way until you're where you want to be.

Halong-Bay-Boat-Boy.jpg
My picture of two crew members before we all fell asleep. Separately, of course!

After an hour of either waiting for crew or waiting to be released from the crush of boats at the pier, we headed out into the bay. It was an overcast morning, and although we could see the karst formations, they were distant and therefore more like ghosts than reality. We lunched on some really rather good and fresh Vietnamese food, and then - lulled by the engine - I fell asleep on the dining room couches along with three of the crew! When Lloyd woke me up, not an hour later, the landscape had been transformed. The sky was just beginning to turn blue as the sun burned off the morning's haze. In turn, the water was becoming more and more green. All around us, the most splendid big, dark brown junks ferried tourists. Anywhere else, the volume of boats might be unappealing, but the boats themselves are just so damn attractive. And they fit the scenery perfectly. How could you complain?

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We passed between huge limestone stacks that towered hundreds of feet above us. In some places, the rock was sheer and shiny. In others, trees and bushes clung to life on the rockface and within birds and monkeys and other animals made their presence known. With the towers all around, we passed floating fishing villages where inhabitants might spend their entire lives on the water.

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With the addition of tourism to the local economy, many fishing villages now do a healthy trade in kayak rental or junk food sales (choco-pie anyone?), but fishing is still an essential activity, and we watched a number of fishermen and women in action.

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On Monday afternoon, we headed out on kayaks for a closer examination of some of the bays. We'd wanted to swim here, too, but the water was a little murkier than we expected. Emerald green, sure. Crystal clear it is not. Nonetheless, we really enjoyed kayaking, especially passing underneath one of the giant karsts and emerging to a simply spectacular view as sunset approached.

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All in all, it was an excellent experience that we would highly recommend. We're told that - as a UNESCO Heritage site - the number of boats with access is limited, but the fact is our 14 person boat carried only five passengers, and nearly every other boat we saw was operating far below capacity too. Having so much space on board was great for us, but we wondered about the diesel-chugging junks' impact on this area of outstanding natural beauty. Clearly there has to be a better way to minimize the impact of tourism here, and it has to be done quickly in order to counterbalance the growth in tourist volume - from about half a million in 2003 to perhaps more than a million last year.

Back off the soap-box, we headed back into Halong City harbour on Tuesday morning, after a sweaty, non-AC night on board our otherwise comfortable boat. A quick stop at 'Surprise Cave', discovered by the French in 1901 and allegedly used by the Viet Cong as a hideout during the Vietnam War, revealed some impressively large cave systems, but perhaps more importantly offered a beatiful vista over the surrounding area.

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All too soon, we were back in the harbour, this time forcing our way into dock rather than out. How long until we get back to Halong? Too long.

Posted by jacquiedro 09:30 Archived in Vietnam Tagged round_the_world

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