Published: April 7th 2012April 7th 2012
Halong Bay, what's the big deal?
Well if you describe it statistically, it's a water body of about 1.5 square kilometres with an 120km coastline in the Gulf of Tonkin, near the border with China and 170km east of Hanoi. It has 1,969 limestone 'islands' the tops covered with trees. It had UNESCO world heritage status from 1994, but since 2011 has been upgraded to one of only seven natural wonders of the world.
If you describe it mythically, it's local legend tells of a family of dragons sent by the gods to help defend the land from the invading Chinese. The dragons descended upon the area now known as Ha Long Bay and began spitting out jewels and jade, which turned into islands, linking together to form a barrier against the invaders.
If you describe it scenically, awesome! wow! Oi troi oi! (oh my Buddha!). What a beautiful place and how priviledged were we to spend two whole days there.
Having broken the journey to Halong Bay with an intersting visit to a pottery workshop, with ladies hand painting patterns onto pots at great speed (photos don't show that, but trust me, they were super speedy
quick!) we arrived at the very busy port where the boats were all jostling for position, some already leaving, some returning with passengers and some, including ours, all ready and waiting to depart. We had a white, three decked boat all to ourselves, with twin cabins (en-suite - kind of - showers went over everything including the toilet!) on the lower deck, a plush dining and bar area on the middle deck and sunloungers on the top deck. We spent most of the boat trip on the way out up on the top deck just stunned by the 360 degree panoramic wowser of a scene spread out before us, with big boats like ours dotted all about, floating groups of little house-boats, and tiny fishing boats in the distance reeling in their catches. Rising spectacularly from the sea all around us were the famous limestone karsts left behind from millions of years of erosion and sea level changes.
I found it quite strange not to see any birdlife apart from the odd one or two large birds of prey (none of the Vietnamese guys on board knew what they were, other than the vague description - Sea Hawks! A
bit of googling tells me they were black kites.) so it was pretty quiet from a wildlife point of view and quite weird in this respect, for me anyway.
So many photos taken, including my mandatory jumping one. Phenominal views all round, big grins and happy Lottie Let Loose. Unfortunately we didn't get that close to my virtual geocache but I still managed to get a shot of me with the 'fighting cock' rocks in the background (me huge, them tiny!). Hard to estimate how far apart they were from that distance (one of the questions I had to answer to claim the cache) but looking at postcards later it looked about 3 to 5m.
As we carried further on it looked as if we might be heading towards another virtual geocache and sure enough we anchored up at the Hang Sung Sot caves (or cave of surprises). They were pretty impressive, consisting of three huge chambers with loads of strangely shaped rocks, stalactites and stalagmites. All the guides had red lazor lights to point out things like 'laughing Buddha' or 'dog' or 'cockeral' to which we all squinted and said 'oh yes' whilst thinking 'yeah right! more
like broccoli or dog turd'. One, however, was unmistakeable and everyone agreed, yes it really was a humungous dick and wonderfully lit by pink light to emphasise the effect too! So the answers to my virtual geocache questions for the Hang Sung Sot Caves will be: 1. Limestone, 2. Three chambers and 3. A humungous dick! I love geocaching ;)
As we emerged out into the light we found ourselves high up, overlooking the bay where all the boats were dotted about, so took some more photos of the wonderful views, this time from above.
After the visit to the caves me, Natalie and Gino took up the option to go out sea kayaking along with one of our boat crew. It was so peaceful to get away from the noisy boat engine and be able to get close to the rock face of the now huge towering cliffs above us. They hadn't seemed quite so massive from further away on the boat. We headed towards a low cave/hole through one of the rock faces (paying a wee fee first!) and emerged (after echoey singing from me and hilarious kukaburra type noises from Nat - she's promised to
teach me how to do it) into a beautiful lagoon area with almost vertical rock faces all around with trees on the tops and some of the way down. We saw monkeys up in the tree tops who started fighting and screeching, tumbling down the rock face alarmingly and grabbing branches, seemingly at the last moment. Apparently in the mornings, when more of them are active, there are up to 200 at this site. So monkeys not birds - how unexpected. Oh I've just remembered I did see what looked like swifts flitting in and out of the cave, so there were some other birds apart from the kites.
All too soon we had to head back to our boat, hidden amongst lots of other similar boats. Our naughty guide joked that if we couldn't identify ours, we would have to go back to the lagoon and sleep in our kayaks! When we got back we found the others had been living up to their Aussie/Kiwi stereotypes knocking back vast quantities of beer. Much hilarity ensued - very innuendo based humour. We also had Abba blaring out from the tv set up and this was the weird way the
evening was spent in this stunning natural wonder. I don't think 'breathing place for the soul' or 'quiet enjoyment' has quite reached Vietnam's way of thinking yet. And yes, the boats' engines were left running ALL NIGHT! (for the lights, air conditioning and hot water!).
We woke to a spattering of rain, refreshing after the mugginess and humidity we'd been experiencing so far. After a breakfast, with 360 degree beautiful views, we set off back to the port. Just as we arrived the heavens opened and we dashed to the minibus for a wet journey back to Hanoi - less traffic on the roads, but as we got nearer to Hanoi we saw that it hadn't put off the moped riders who were all wearing kind of waterproof ponchos that went over the handle bars, themselves and then over the back of the bike. Some of the pillion passengers were even holding umbrellas over themselves and the rider! The cyclists and pedestrians chose the famous conical hats (we are going to see these being made at some point).
And so we are back in Hanoi, freshening up, repacking our bags, catching up on emails etc and stocking up
on a bit of snack type food before heading off to the train station for our overnight train journey to Hue (pronounced Hoo-ay) on the Reunification Express train. I kind of know what to expect having experienced similar in India, but these are only 4 berths that you can lock rather than the open 9 berth ones we travelled on from Varanasi to New Delhi, so hopefully it will an improvement.
There are more photos below