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Published: December 6th 2011
Expectations can often be capricious things. Habitually, they can exist to set a ceiling of expectancy simply too high to realize, such that we are destined for disappointment. Of course, there is that wonderfully unforeseen opposite; where a place or event holds modest promise in our anticipatory minds, yet surpasses any and all preconceived notions to provide us with an experience all the more extraordinary, precisely because of how it came to pass. During our time on the road, we’ve had numerous experiences which could fall into either category (often depending on who you ask!). Well, for Amy and I, Halong Bay fell into neither class! This particular archipelago illicited excited expectations and subsequently followed through on its promise, leaving us simply astounded!
Halong Bay is a place which inspires wonderment and awe amongst all who venture out into its waters. Within 500km of Halong Bay, you are already confronted with the postcards, oil paintings and t-shirts depicting Vietnam’s national treasure. It’s not difficult to understand why either. Covering an area of almost 1,500 square km (including the Cat Ba area) and encompassing approximately 2,000 islets of limestone formations 20 million years in the making, this truly is one of
the world’s great wonders and one which I had been dreaming of visiting well before we even planned our travels.
Of course, existing as a landmark of such beauty in a region steeped in history and tradition, the place couldn’t be complete without mythical origins! According to folklore, Vietnam in its infancy had to defend herself against foreign occupancy, and as a young nation was having difficulty doing so. Conveniently, the Gods dispatched a number of dragons to help out. However, rather than breathing fire, these dragons began spitting jewels into the ocean, which then grew into the limestone karsts we see today to provide a wall of protection for the locals. Science disputes this theory of course but with a name which translates as “Descending Dragon,” it only added to the mystique and intrigue!
It was certainly the anticipation which provided us the endurance to power through yet another seemingly endless journey traipsing up the Vietnamese coast! This time, we had headed out via bus from Hoi An at 8am, followed by an afternoon stop-over in Hue. After a brief few hours spent sauntering around the citadel, we were back on the dreaded night bus, where we
had a thirteen hour journey ahead of us to reach Hanoi. However, as night bus journeys go, this one was not too bad and I actually slept better than I had in some hotels.
As we approached Hanoi, with the original plan to spend one or two nights here before venturing over to Halong Bay, we decided since it was so early in the morning and with the weather in Hanoi looking particularly miserable, why not hop on yet another bus and reach Halong Bay! Four hours later, we arrived in Halong City but our journey hadn’t ended yet! We decided, wisely as it turned out, to forgo the standard 3 day, 2 night tour of Halong Bay for more of a do-it-yourself explorative stay in this beautiful place. Indeed when we arrived in Halong City and were confronted with more foreign faces than we’d seen in one place since Bangkok, the thought of joining one of the organised tours was none too appealing as we would have hated to be on another person’s schedule! It was actually here that I must admit that my expectations for the Bay took a slight knock. Despite my high hopes, it seemed
as though every traveller in South-East Asia is on a collision course with Halong Bay, and with so many people making their way across this part of the continent, I was starting to doubt our chances of finding solitude and being able to fully appreciate the beauty of Halong Bay.
Out of necessity, we hopped on one of the tour boats which would escort us to Cat Ba Island, with a stop at a famous (luminously lit) cave thrown in for good measure. A four hour boat ride, one hour bus ride and a short walk later, we arrived at our accommodation for the next few nights on Cat Ba Island – a full 36 hours after leaving Hoi An...Travellers indeed!
After such a long journey, we needed food, fast. Conveniently, we found the ‘Green Mango’ restaurant only a few doors down from our hotel on the waterfront, and with its excellent selection of both western and Vietnamese food, being creatures of habit we dined here for the duration of our stay. After practically inhaling my lamb shank (Amy’s pizza didn’t last too long either, nor did Ste’s stir fried beef), we sipped a few well earned beers
before retiring for the night in preparation for an exciting day ahead.
As I mentioned earlier, we hadn’t booked onto any tour. For us this was perfect as we could move at our own pace. In my opinion, Halong Bay is a place best explored at a leisurely pace, where one can truly appreciate the intricacies of its beauty. We hired a couple of Kayaks and headed down to Ben Beo jetty with Lan Ha Bay our intended destination. Lan Ha Bay, a part of Halong Bay, is out of the way of all of the tourist boats that leave on day trips and tours from Halong City, yet it possesses all the typical photogenic beauty of Halong Bay. What’s more, throughout the numerous coves of the hundred or so islets which make up this bay, many have tiny little secluded beaches! That was all the information we needed.
We headed out onto the water with glorious sunshine to accompany our adventure. Along the way we passed through one of the famed floating fishing villages of Halong Bay, of which there are four (Cửa Vạn, Ba Hang, Cống Tàu and Vông Viêng) with 1,600 residents between them. Here
we were greeted with smiles and waves all around and what’s more, not a single foreigner in sight!
We continued our journey, winding through narrow passageways, finding secretive lagoons along the way, to one of which we tied up our Kayaks and jumped into the cool water for a refreshing swim. Finally, after a few hours Kayaking, we saw ahead of us an isolated stretch of sand, fifty yards or so in width, surrounded on all sides by limestone cliff faces but not so sheltered as to obscure sunlight. I’m sure you can guess where we headed! We dragged our Kayaks ashore and lazed around on the sand for an hour or so, occasionally venturing into the shallow water to cool down. By this point we had Kayaked for approximately two hours and had seen one foreign person...just one! What had, for the briefest moment a day earlier, seemed like a chaotic, tourist filled ‘theme park’ had now fully met and surpassed my expectations – we three headed back to Cat Ba on such a high!
The following day, with the skies a little overcast, we opted to hire a couple of motorcycles to explore the island a
little more. Cat Ba Island is the biggest island in Halong Bay and in its centre, even has its own national park. It was for this national park that we set out. Along the way, we wound our way along country roads, through rice fields and along coastal stretches before finally entering the national park. Beautiful scenery greeted us – limestone cliffs vertically shooting out of the forests, covered in green soaring towards the sky, an inland ode to their more famous relatives in Halong Bay. We drove for almost five hours, the wind breezing through our hair (not so much the case for Ste!) before heading back to Cat Ba Town before sunset.
We planned to leave the following day, so ate a final meal at the Green Mango, satisfied that two days had never been better spent! NOTE: On the night train up to Bac Ha, I discovered that I had had $230 stolen from my room whilst were out at dinner on our final night. The money had been locked away and was there before we arrived in Cat Ba and gone by the time we left. In fact, the person who took it had
even left some bills in the place where I keep my money, so on first glance it would appear all was well! We stayed at the Bay View Hotel, and did not book ahead, which was unfortunate since subsequent reviews we have come across indicate we are not the first to be robbed whilst staying here and other customers have even been threatened with knives after complaining about thefts, so for any travellers heading out to Cat Ba, consider this when choosing your hotel!
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