"What's the most amazing sight you have ever seen?"
A friend asked me that a few days ago and I thought about it for a nanosecond and answered, "my son being born".
The father being present at the birth was still very new and controversial. In fact, I'd planned to be at my daughter's birth a couple of years earlier, but after I had been up all night waiting, the medical people told me that the little child who turned out to be my beautiful daughter wasn't going to come for hours more and suggested I go off and have some breakfast or at least a coffee. When I got back, I had missed the show but become a father! I'm sure they just wanted me out of the way.
My friend said "No! You fool! I know all about that! I mean, in your travel, what's the most amazing sight you have ever seen?"
I had to think a lot longer about that answer!
I remembered my first trip to China, flying London to Beijing – a long flight – and falling asleep only to wake up and look out at what in my drowsy state seemed to be the surface of Mars. I honestly thought for a moment I'd gotten on the wrong plane! All I could see was this beautiful, red, mountainous terrain which showed no evidence of human life. Only later did one of the cabin crew inform me we were flying over Mongolia.
I remember entering an Orthodox Christian Church somewhere in Moscow back in the latter stages of the USSR and literally having my breath taken away by the beauty. I will never forget standing in the Vatican and seeing Michelangelo's La Pieta, the most beautiful, manmade object I've ever seen. I remember the insane scenery of Zhangjiajie In China's Hunan province. I recall standing on a dusty street in Cairo, Egypt and, for the first time, seeing the Great Pyramid of Giza in the distance.
I cannot forget one moment in a hilltop village somewhere in Italy, where I walking by a simple peasant house which had a passion fruit plant growing by its wall, with the most beautiful flowers I've ever seen. Etched in my memory forever is one evening sitting in a simple family-run restaurant in Marrakesh, Morocco, eating the most delicious food, watching the world go by and being sure I'd never been happier. I could go on and on! But I could never answer my friend's question – "What's the most amazing sight you have ever seen?"
Today though, I will look at one contender for the title. It is one of those places that you may have seen pictures of in travel magazines, on websites like this or on travel programs on television. But, that is no substitute for seeing it for yourself. Even then, it feels unreal. Too stunning to be true, but you know it must be. You are there! It's right in front of you! It's all around you!
About 170 kilometers / 105 miles from Hanoi, Vietnam lies one of the most astounding sights this planet has to offer. Vịnh Hạ Long, known in English as Halong Bay, on Vietnam's eastern coast, near the border with China, is a spectacular scene of natural beauty, yet it somehow looks like a magical dream land. The name "Ha Long" means "descending dragon" and may come from a myth about the creation of the bay by a dragon which fell to earth and decided to stay here.
The 1,500 square km2 / 580 sq mile Halong Bay was formed some 340 million years ago and erosion of the limestone over the years has produced the awesome karst land and seascape we see today. The large bay with emerald waters is dotted by between 1,600 and 2,000 islands. It is impossible to count due to some being submerged at high tide, so estimates vary. The vast majority of the islands are uninhabited and unsullied by man's presence. These islands are home to a highly diverse range of fauna and flora, making the bay an important scientific resource as well as a tourist attraction. The bay is popular with artists and photographers trying to capture every aspect of its charm and power.
In 1994, Ha Long Bay was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for its "outstanding scenic beauty … complemented by its great biological interest"
Most visitors to the bay take one of the cruises on offer and relax while drifting the bay waters between the limestone pinnacles and islets, dropping off to visit islands and amazing caves. It is recommended that you stay on the cruise ship for at least one night to enjoy a romantic meal on board your ship, while witnessing the dramatic dusk. Then, in the morning, wake up to see the equally impressive dawn. It is also possible to tour the bay by seaplane, giving an excellent overhead view. You can go swimming, kayaking or kite flying, if you wish.
Halong Bay cruise
So, now I'm going to attempt the impossible and tell you of some of the highlights I think you really must visit when you are here.
Cát Bà Island (Đảo Cát Bà) is Halong Bay's largest island at 285 km2 (110 sq miles) and has a population of around 18,000. Many of the cruise ships stop here. The island contains a 98 km2 / 38 sq mile National Park which has an important, varied ecosystem, giving it a high rate of biodiversity. It is also home to the highly endangered Cát Bà lemur.
As the most developed island in Halong Bay, there are a number of hotels on the island, although most visitors are day visitors from the cruise ships. Cát Bà also has a number of excellent, floating seafood restaurants serving locally harvested delights such as fish and the strange looking geoduck and plump oysters. Try the mantis shrimp - known here as bề bề or tôm tít, these are among some of the largest shrimp you can find! But if you are not a seafood eater or have an allergy, there are plenty of other choices. There are also a number of bars here where you can relax.
Cát Bà has two popular beaches, rather prosaically called Beach 1 and Beach 2. Both are good for sunbathing or swimming, but can get busy. For a quieter time and nicer beaches, you can take a boat trip or even kayak to Monkey Island, just under 3km / 2 miles from Cát Bà.
Kayaking in Halong Bay
Another island well worth visiting is Bồ Hòn Island (Đảo Bồ Hòn), meaning Soapberry Tree Island. Actually, this is not one island, but a string of islets. Again most cruise ships stop here or offer side trips. The main attractions here are the caves, especially Hang Sửng Sốt or Surprise Cave. This cave was discovered in 1905 by French colonialists and they named it "Grotte des Surprises" which was later literally translated into both the Vietnamese and English names. One of the largest and perhaps the most beautiful cave in Halong, the cave comprises two chambers linked by a narrow passageway. From the dock there is a 50 step climb to the cave entrance. Entering, you find yourself stunned by what is known as the "Waiting Room", a huge, breathtaking chamber of stalactites and stalagmites, illuminated by multi-colored lights to complement and show off the natural beauty.
Passing along the connecting passageway, you arrive at the "Serene Castle", another large chamber. This one has a very high ceiling and is full of beautiful, but strange rock formations, many of which are considered by the locals to resemble different animals.
Hang Trinh Nữ or Virgin Cave is also here. According to a well-known legend the landlord of a local fisherman and his beautiful daughter demanded that the girl become his concubine. The already engaged girl refused and in his anger the landlord evicted them. The girl's fiancé who had been way fishing at the time, then set out by boat to find her. A mighty storm destroyed the boat and, clinging into the wreckage, he was washed up on a remote island. He took refuge in a cave from where he spotted his love in another cave opposite. He hammered at the cliff wall with a rock to get her attention, but to no avail. Her fear had literally petrified her and she had turned to stone. He continued hammering until he too turned to stone. In the Virgin Cave, you can see a stone figure in the center which is said to be the fisherman's daughter, looking out to sea yearning for her fiancé. And indeed, opposite is Trong Cave where there is a second figure staring back at his petrified fiancée.
Sunrise over Halong Bay
Many Halong Bay cruises include Bái Tử Long Bay. This is not technically part of Halong, but is adjacent and can be a more relaxed place to visit as it is less visited. The whole bay is protected as Bái Tử Long Bay National Park. Bái Tử Long means "Dragons' Offspring", the rocks and islands here being the eggs of the descending dragon which gave it's name to Halong! This beautiful bay consists of a land area of 61 km2 / 23½ sq miles and a sea area of 97 km2 / 37½ sq miles. The forested land is home to several species, many endangered, such as leopard cats, Indian muntjac, civets. The rocky islands are home to rhesus macaques. The sea is home to over 400 species of fish, 149 species of mollusks and 22 species of crustaceans, among others.
There are a number of good, unpolluted beaches here, too. Co To Island (Đảo Cô Tô Con) has some of the best beaches in Vietnam. Hồng Vàn Beach (Bãi tắm Hồng Vàn) is a 3 km / 2 mile long stretch of fine, pure white sand. The facilities here are simple, but the quiet beach is a delight. Vàn Chảy Beach (Bãi tắm Vàn Chảy) is known for its water sports.
Quan Lan Island (Đảo Quan Lạn) is home to Minh Châu Beach (Bãi tắm Minh Châu), a beautiful, quiet 1 km / 1,100 yard long, crescent shaped beach. In summer (May to August) you can rent kayaks and there are several beachside restaurants and bars. Another great place to eat seafood!
Also in Bái Tử Long Bay, is Vung Viêng Fishing Village. First set up in the 19th century as a mooring station and marketplace for local fishermen, until recently, around 50 families lived here, fishing and selling the bounty of the bay. Then slowly, the tourists started to arrive and they supplemented their main income by offering services to visitors. By 2012, increased tourism and the growing threat of pollution and overcrowding was becoming difficult to sustain and Halong Bay authorities began the process of moving the residents of the floating village inland. This was not welcomed at first by the locals who had lived there happily for generations, mostly following their traditional way of life.
But they came to accept that it was for the best. They have access to a higher living standard and their children can be better educated. The village remains open as a kind of living museum. The locals, now much more aware of the environmental hazards of unsustainable practices, can still trade there and help teach visitors about the culture and marine life. All visitors are given nets with which to scoop up any litter floating in the water, resulting in 16 tonnes of garbage being removed from the bay in the first six months. Similar efforts are being made in other parts of Halong Bay.
I hope this will encourage you to come to Vietnam to see this wonderland for yourself. Trips and cruises to Halong Bay can be included in any Vietnam or multi-destination visit to SE Asia, and here at Odynovo, we will be happy to design your own, private custom-made itinerary. Just tell us your dreams and wishes and we will get back to you within 24 hours with a free, amendable, suggested visit plan for you to consider. Hopefully, once this is tweaked to your satisfaction, we will soon be able to welcome you to one of the most beautiful places on Earth.