Friday, December 14, 2012

Descending Dragon: A 3 day cruise in Bai Tu Long Bay, Halong Bay

I was extremely excited about our 3 day/2 night Halong Bay cruise. But at the same time I was a little apprehensive. The majestic beauty if Halong Bay is undisputed. But with majestic beauty comes the hordes of tourists who want to see and experience said majestic beauty. Some would argue that Halong Bay has been spoiled by the many tourists boats going in and out each day. There are always other boats around, sometimes even party boats playing loud music, and more and more there is trash floating in the once pristine emerald green waters. I know. Doesn't sound all that appealing, right?

Well, not everyone has a bad experience and we had received a good tip for a boat from some travelers we met in Chiang Mai. Indochina Junks, also very highly ranked on tripadvisor, managed to put all of our worries to rest. They operate in Bai Tu Long Bay, where they are the only tour company licensed to operate in that section of Halong Bay. So the only other boats you see (besides fishing boats) are a few of their own boats and they pretty much keep out of each other's way. Amazingly, they are not more expensive than other boats of their class, and we still managed to book just a few days ahead.

A little background. Halong Bay, descending dragon in Vietnamese, consists of over 3000 limestone islands, covered with thick, lush vegetation jutting nearly straight up out of the water. The islands boast hundreds of caves, with several islands nearly hollow. Freshwater lakes can also be found on some of the islands. Only a few of the islands are inhabitable, and a number of floating fishing villages also exist in the area. Its name derives from a myth that dragons, who were originally sent by the Vietnamese gods to help protect the people from invaders, eventually settled in the bay. Halong Bay was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in1994.

When we arrived at the harbor in Halong Bay, we could make out the dark masses of limestone jutting sharply out of the water. It was magical already! We boarded the boat, put Simon to sleep immediately, and sat down for an eight course lunch of delicious Vietnamese seafood. What a start!

Felt I had to include a picture, but it doesn't do it justice.
We woke Simon up 10 minutes before our first kayaking trip. We kayaked around a few islands. Ok. Martin kayaked around the islands. After hitting Simon in the head a few times with the paddle I was met with a firm, "Stop it, Mama!" any time I tried to pitch in.

That night we had dinner in a cave. It was beautifully lit and the food was amazing. I don't know that I have ever had dinner in a cave again. It was an experience. The cave was enormous and filledwith stalactites and stalagmites, you could almost imagine living there.

In fact, It is not hard to imagine for many fishermen, as that cave used to actually be the home of a fisherman family living in Halong Bay. Before Halong Bay was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1994, the fishermen of Halong Bay and their families lived in the many caves on the islands. In 1994 the government required all of them to leave the caves and moved them to floating villages. This was a huge change for the way of life for these people. They had never lived in a community setting or had access to schools. Most importantly, according it our guide, they now also has electricity which allowed them to watch tv. Why was that so important? The weather! Living in caves, the fishermen had no access to weather forecasts and could be caught out in huge storms, easily preventable if you had just listened to the weather guy. Boats from the mainland come out regularly to bring them fresh produce and other necessities, as well as to purchase fresh fish and seafood. They have to travel to town for medical attention or for any education beyond elementary school.

The yellow building in the middle is the school house.
Checking out where the fish are ket until they are sold.
A quick language lesson: shut up and thank you are quite similar in Vietnamese.
When we visited a fishing village, we were picked up by bamboo boats rowed by members of the village. While the setup was not unlike a rowboat as I know it, the technique was totally different. They stood up with the oars in front of them, facing the direction of travel. Martin and I each gave it a shot with varying levels of success. I couldn't even figure out which direction to move the paddles in order to go forward. It didn't go well, and I had to hand the oars back over to the professional so that we could continue on our journey.

On one of our kayaking trips we were even lucky enough to have the sun break out for a few hours. It is winter in northern Vietnam, and this often means chilly and overcast weather in Halong Bay. Luckily, chilly for Vietnamese is not the same for a Minnesota-Swedish couple. And when the sun broke out I did what any good Minnesota girl would do when the sun is out and you are faced with a pristine body of water - I swam. (I know that my dad and sisters would have done the same. I felt that it would bring shame to my family if I did not.) UuuIt was so beautiful, I could have just swum around those islands for hours. Martin and Simon joined me, and the water was perfectly pleasant.

It was nice to have a break from the constant planning that goes with being on the move. We didn't have to find a restaurant or book a hotel, everything was planned for us, we just went with the flow. And Simon was very happy, the staff were amazing with him, and he even got to drive the boat whenever he wanted. It was just the bit of R&R that we needed.

Simon and Sunny, our guide.


  1. This sounds like an amazing three days! And I love the pictures! Especially the one of all of you in the kayak - so cute!

  2. Okay, now I am all caught up on the blogs. I love the pic of simon driving the boat! Too funny. I talked to Omar and he said he is having dinner with you guys tomorrow night!! So jealous. And I saw that you climbed Phu Si mountain- one of our favorites. Stay thirsty, my friend.