Vietnam is a country of contrasts. The chaotic din of the cities - dirty, dusty and crawling with mopeds - slowly fades to reveal a vast patchwork of vivid green rice paddies specked with conical hats. The cities cannot be ignored – vibrant, heaving, and at times dangerous (trying to cross the road is tricky to say the least) – but stay too long and the din becomes too loud. If you're visiting Vietnam's capital city, Hanoi, the perfect antidote is a trip to Halong Bay.
Tottering along a rather precarious plank of wood, with a backpack twice my size threatening to overthrow me at any point, I boarded the boat that would escort me along the bay. Heading out of the harbour on the renovated junk, the moist, cold air seeping into my clothes and skin, I felt a sudden rush of tranquillity, an instant calm and contentment.
The bay is considered a natural wonder; a vast expanse of water dotted with thousands of rocky islands each topped with thick jungle vegetation so dense it is still uninhabitable. As we drifted silently along the still sea, the great monoliths of stone seemed to rise from the water, majestic and imposing, while the permanent mists that lie over the bay obscured the distant views so that a tapestry of shadows formed along the horizon: a geographic work of art. Such serene beauty can but leave you breathless and I stood at the helm of the boat for a long time just looking, a soft breeze creating the only flicks of movement in a motionless landscape.
Others joined me in my silent sentry, a party of twelve in total, until we were called inside for lunch. Over a divine feast of Vietnamese cuisine I got to know my fellow travellers, a diverse mix brought together by a simple quest for adventure: Ken the Vietnam war veteran returning for the first time since the end of the conflict, seeking to experience the country devoid of the ravages of war; Hannah and Roger, a young American couple recently engaged and living in China to teach and learn in return; and Alex, a L.A. socialite with the most enviable phone book I have ever come across – none other than Mick Jagger gave her travel advice before she left!
After devouring our food and the tales we each had to tell, we spent the day kayaking around the bay; gliding along the water through ancient caves and secluded lagoons. An almost eerie silence pervaded the air, only occasionally punctuated by the splash of a paddle or a shriek of delight. We stopped to explore the famous Sung Sot Cave (or ‘Amazing Cave’ to the locals), where the rock formations seem to take the form of strange animals and mystical creatures. The magic was a little tainted by the colourful lighting that’s been installed but it’s worth a visit nonetheless.
As the mainland faded into the distance, we came across the floating villages that line the sheer limestone cliffs of the karsts and isles. Unable to conquer the rocky land around them, the people of Halong Bay spend their whole lives floating, never feeling beneath their feet the hard certainty of land. Houses, shops, schools and even churches bob along the water, bound together with rope and wood. The villagers fish and trade, often selling their wares from little rowing boats laden with goods. Open your cabin window and you’ll often be greeted by a waving hand and toothless smile.
Anchored for the night, we gathered on deck for an informal party. Bound by a mutual experience we chatted like old friends eager to share, overflowing with heady excitement. We drank too much rum and reminisced late into the night, surrounded by stone sentinels and infinite water.
The next day a few guests returned to the mainland. We decided to stay and explore Cat Ba, the only one of the islands inhabited by people. A small boat took us to the island and our guide led us to a hidden cave used as a secret hospital during the Vietnam war. Completely obscured by vegetation, small stone steps lead to three stories of concrete treatment rooms, operating theatres and offices. What once was a bustling place, the air tinged with bleach and blood, is now stark and bare. Mr Khoi showed us around the labyrinth of rooms, a nimble 74-year-old war veteran who seemed to have taken it upon himself to become the steward of this forgotten history.
Cycling around the island through dusty villages, vibrant paddy fields and small farms, we were transported to another time: a simpler life. The hectic cities faded away and a sense of peace and calm pervaded our minds. If you visit Hanoi, be sure to escape to this natural wonder: a rare, almost mystical place that lingers long after you’ve left.
Need to know
It is possible to visit Halong Bay year-round, but the best time to visit is from October to April. During the winter months of December, January and February, the weather can be cool and overcast with low visibility. During the summer months, from May to September, temperatures rise and storms are more likely.
The Halong Phoenix Cruiser is a good example of a traditional junk: one to three day trips are available. Day trips start from US$49 per person, two-day trips (including a night on the boat) from US$ 115 per person. Three-day trips including a visit to Cat Ba island start form US$210 per person. All trips include transfers to and from Hanoi. See their website for more information.