Halong charms beyond the crowds
Capturing Halong Bay in a photograph just doesn’t work. You have to be in it. Limestone cliffs rise out of the bay, and with a little imagination you can see them hovering over the water.
I am enclosed in a secret haven, and my camera just can’t capture it.
An overnight cruise on a traditional junk is the way to experience Halong Bay. At more than 1500 square kilometres, to get a worthwhile look at it, you really have to experience an overnight cruise.
It gives you time to get to the pristine waters that aren’t plagued by tourists, take a dip in the perennially tepid water and visit the ‘‘floating villages’’ – literally, entire little villages sit on stilts in the middle of the sea.
If the weather is fine then there is no better way to spend a day than on deck, relaxing in a sun-chair as the junk pushes gently out to the bay. If it’s bad weather, a shroud of mist creeps in between the rock columns, giving the bay a subtle air of mystery. Either way, it’s postcard perfect.
At the same time, the carefully crafted image is not necessarily real.
Halong Bay was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994. It has long been a must-see among tourists and the downside is - it’s swarming with them. It is by far the most popular tourist destination in Vietnam. According to the Vietnamese tourism authority, 5.5 million tourists visited Halong Bay in 2011.
Local authorities in Quang Ninh Province have made the bizarre decision to paint the junks operating Halong Bay white. In an attempt to clean up the bay - this year named one of the new Wonders of the World - cruise boat operators were given the ultimatum to paint their boats white or face expulsion from the bay.
The result is a number of off-white looking junks which have lost some of thier ‘‘oriental feel’’. Regardless, Halong Bay is still overloaded with charm and the cruise companies do a good job in making the experience one that can’t be found anywhere else in the world.
One of the major operators Bayha Cruises offers a range of boats from the basic to the all-out luxurious. With 16-20 people aboard, the cruises are intimate but relaxing with plenty of personal space.
Private balconies make the experience all the more special - even romantic. They provide a brilliant diving platform, particularly if - as on our cruise - a bunch of Kiwis is disappointed at not being allowed to dive off the roof.
Activities like squid fishing off the back of the boat and kayaking to fishing villages make for personal and intimate experiences.
Halong Bay provides one of the most visually stunning backdrops anywhere in the world. Despite its popularity, it is not difficult to lie back and let the rest of the world disappear. Any increase in tourists could change that, but at the risk of contributing to the problem, I recomment you see it, see it soon, and see it overnight.
World Expeditions' Bike, Hike & Kayak northern Vietnam offers 11 days for $2690 including most meals and accommodation. The nine-day North Vietnam Explorer costs $1930. Visit worldexpeditions.com for details. Fly Singapore Airlines to Hanoi with daily departures.