On the Back of the ‘Rising Dragon’
Kayaking, caverns, sunsets and a ‘post-apocalyptic’ seascape await visitors to Halong Bay in Vietnam.
An Evening in Halong Bay
Carved from the sea, winds and rain formed over millions of years, Halong Bay’s islands are one of the premier tourist attractions in all of Southeast Asia. The ancient karst landscape is made of 1,968 islands jutting from the South China Sea. Roughly 500 boats are docked in Halong bay to support the booming tourism industry offering visitors a variety of packages to enjoy the scenic beauty of the limestone islands.
Among the tour packages offered, tourists can enjoy 3-day trips to the largest of Halong Bay’s islands, Cat Ba island, or can enjoy a 1-night, 2-day exploration and cruise. Each cruise offers a variety of activities and entertainment from spelunking, to kayaking, cooking classes, movies and karaoke. It’s easy enough to book the tours and well worth it to find a tour to fit your preferences and timeframe.
One Night and Two Days on the Phoenix Cruiser
After boarding one of the smaller cruisers, guests are served lunch while enjoying the views on the way into the islands. The entrees are a blend of western and Vietnamese dishes to cater to the western palate. Dishes included swordfish, oysters, pork and calamari. Guests have their first opportunity to mingle with the other families, couples and travelers on the boat. It’s a good opportunity to meet people from all over the world. On my ship there was a Russian family, couples from Singapore, China and Southern Vietnam, as well as fellow Americans. Meanwhile, the cruise ship drops anchor alongside a group of other ships in one of the many bays among the islands.
Hang Sut Sot Cavern
After lunch guests are invited to visit Hang Sut Son, translated ‘surprise’ cavern. Visitors are taken on smaller, nimbler passenger boats and taken to a nearby island to visit the caves. The cavern, made over 500 million years, was whittled from raindrops and rising tides. Impressively large, with many chambers lit for better picture taking, the path winding through the caverns is a surprising 1.8 km long. Naturally, the appeal of Halong Bay draws many tourists to the caverns during high season, which can dampen the feeling of exploration that comes with touring the natural beauty of the islands.
After the caverns, guests are taken to a nearby beach to enjoy the sunset; a sublime experience enjoyed by those lucky enough to see it, as it’s often hidden behind clouds and fog. In the evening, guests join for dinner, followed by cocktails. While some boats offer on-deck movie screenings and karaoke after dinner, the small Phoenix Cruiser allowed guests the chance to relax, watch the stars and converse with neighbors.
In the morning, after a light breakfast the guests split into two groups. Half leave on another boat heading to Cat Ba Island for the 3-night tour package, the rest go kayaking. The kayaks are large and yellow, designed for two people and easy to maneuver for the uninitiated. The morning waters are placid and make for easy rowing as the light comes out from behind the clouds. After taking some time to get comfortable with the kayaks, guests are taken on a tour around the nearby islands. The tour guide stops to point out some of the features of the islands, then again at a nearby oyster farm where fisherman relaxing in hammocks and wave to onlookers.
Returning back to the boat, guests pack their bags and prepare for checkout, while the boat begins its leisurely journey back to the harbor. In the meantime, the staff prepares a cooking class as the final activity. Guests are taught to make spring rolls; choosing ingredients, mixing the filling and finally learning to wrap. The rolls are then collected and served with lunch back at the harbor.
Inspiration and Myths All Around
Floating between the islands seems almost post-apocalyptic, like looking at the tops of mountains flooded from the world’s rising oceans. Scanning along the horizon you can still find signs of life; small fishing villages that have existed in the same fashion for hundreds, if not thousands of years; boats casting nets into the emerald waters.
It’s easy to imagine what it was like for the first Westerners to visit Halong Bay in the 12th century when it was established as Vietnam’s first international port. The name Halong, translates to “Rising Dragon” a name given from what sailors described as a sea monster living in the waters of the bay. Today, it looks more like the islands themselves are part of one large dragon, each one a scale or a curve in its back as it dives in and out of the South China Sea.
Photos by Ryan van Velzer