Hạ Long Bay – Bucolic Beauty
The time had finally come. I had primarily come to Vietnam to “boat around Hạ Long Bay” (as it says on my bucket list), so when we arrived at 7am I was ready and raring to go. However, our rooms weren’t ready and we wouldn’t be boarding the boat until later that morning. So while the rest of the group sat in the lobby and either caught up on sleep or read on their Kindles, I went exploring. I walked along the beach, down the main pier and stepped onto the floating platform, accompanied only by two fishermen who completely ignored me.
It was a foggy morning, but the longer I waited, the clearer it got, until suddenly I could see them. In the distance, some of the limestone karsts that the bay is famed for and what I’d come to see. Because of the fog, it was impossible to judge my propinquity to them, but I took some pictures then headed back to the hotel for a power nap before the boat trip.
An hour’s sleep later, and we were on our way to the marina, where thousands of boats were waiting to take tourists through the maze of rock formations. Being December, the water wasn’t busy and the majority of the boats sat empty. We boarded and were told to stay inside the boat until it had left the port, whereupon we would be allowed upstairs. It took about an hour and a half to reach the first sculptures, in which time we lounged on the roof and each had a turn at steering, before we were called downstairs for lunch.
King prawns, noodles and chicken rice were served, and when finished, we all grabbed our cameras and stood on the front of the boat to take pictures of anything and everything. There is no conflation or imbrication of the karsts, which range from 50 to 100 metres in height; each one is completely unique. The sun caused a penumbra on each and every rock, showing the magnitude of the area we were moving through.
Small fishing boats passed us with the locals onboard waving happily. I found this a little surprising, as we had been told that it is due to the high amount of tourism in the area that the area is so foggy, or rather, smoggy. Most of the locals are born on floating villages, live on the water, and die on the same platoons, never setting foot on solid ground. Boats laden with exotic fruits and vegetables pulled up next to ours and the inhabitants threw produce to us in exchange for coins carefully thrown back.
As we continued through one of the 775 insets, we eventually reached two smaller rocks jutting out of the water. We were informed that the locals call them the “Kissing Chickens”, as they (apparently) look that way. However, none of us could really spot the reference, and we carried on, laughing for a while. My tip: if you are asked if you would like to see them, don’t bother. They are remarkably unremarkable.
Our next stop was to be at the Hang Đầu Gỗ grotto, the largest in the bay. After alighting, we walked the steps to the entrance, and spent the next half hour walking around some of the most beautiful naturally-formed carvings I’ve ever seen. Coloured lights lit up the hundreds of stalagmites and stalactites that decorated the inside of the vast space.
Before returning to shore, we had one last stop at the Dau Go Cave, created in the Pleistocene epoch around two million years ago. In the centre, a huge wooden platform has been constructed, and this was once used as a setting for classical music concerts. As a musician, this was of great interest to me, and when asked why they were no longer held, our guide told us that they had not drawn enough of a crowd. Understandable, being in a cave in the middle of a bay off the coast of Vietnam, as it’s not exactly an easy commute, but a shame nonetheless.
A short while later, we were back on shore and on our way to an Italian restaurant for dinner. One questionable pizza later, and understandably worn out, the majority of the group left for the hotel, but a couple of us sat on the seafront and saw in the evening with a drink or two.
Hạ Long Bay is beautiful and, like everywhere else we’d visited so far in Vietnam, I would head back without hesitation.
The next morning we had a two-hour bus journey to reach Hà Nội, the capital of this amazing country…