Monday, May 12, 2014

Halong Bay Vietnam: A Natural Wonder

I visited Halong Bay over a decade ago, before it was anointed as one of the seven new natural wonders of the world in a global poll.  I recalled liking very much my earlier boat cruise day visit, and decided to spend an overnight on a boat this time.

My, how things have changed!  The bay remains incredibly scenic, but it is now jammed with boats and tourists.  The tour guide of my boat told me that over 100 overnight boats cruise the bay, along with over 300 day trip ships.  At any given moment, 500 boats are crammed about with tourists.  By contrast, I don’t recall seeing more than a handful of ships on my prior visit.

Still, this was very much a worthwhile trip.  The crowds cannot detract from the bay’s incredible beauty.  Some may contest the selection process in the seven new natural wonders poll, but I think few would argue that Halong Bay deserves to be on any short list.  The jutting mountain tops from the ocean floor, together with the floating villages, make it difficult to limit the number of photos.  I think I shot 500 in a day.

I was fortunate as the weather largely cleared up during my short stay on the bay.  It had been raining for days here, with periodic thunderstorms.  While brief showers spoiled some moments and the skies remained mostly cloudy, I felt lucky as the relative dryness allowed me and my ship mates to really enjoy and experience the bay, as well as take some decent photos.

My trip began with an 8:30 am pick up from my Hanoi hotel.   The bus looped around to pick up several more passengers, and then it was about a four hour bus ride to the bay, including the usual 30 minute tourist stop at a souvenir store in the middle of nowhere.  I’m sure the tour operator gets kickbacks.  Yes, I know that Vietnam is one of the world’s largest textile manufacturers, and yes, the abundance of cheap labor makes this a manual task.  I just don’t see any particular cultural significance in seeing the hardworking locals making cheap mass market souvenirs.

The road between Hanoi and Halong Bay was a big improvement from the past, and the highway system apparently is being improved further to shorten the trip by another hour.  Once I pulled into the town, I barely recognized the harbor.  High rise condos and low rise luxury hotels were everywhere.  Instead of a couple of punky looking docks with decrepit boats moored about, there were many modern boat bays with ships of all sizes and shapes.

My ship was quite fine.  It’s old, but well maintained.  My tour guide threw me for a loop when he later pointed to a smaller nearby boat remarking how he used to work for that inferior ship.  “That boat has many rats, maybe 50 or 100.  This boat only has one or two rats, and you won’t see them.”  Umm, comforting thought, I guess.  But then again, why should it surprise me that any boat around here would have these pests?  Rats and boats have gone together since ancient times.  In any case, I neither encountered nor heard any of them, and I enjoyed the boat overall.

I had packed only a small overnight bag, and left my main luggage behind in my Hanoi hotel.  I had written myself a little packing list, which of course I promptly ignored.  Thus, I left my swim trunks behind, along with my cigars.  The latter I could do without, but I felt I really needed the former.  Luckily, at the harbor, I was able to purchase a pair of swimming pants, albeit at a significantly marked up price.

As I mentioned, I thought the boat was fine, but it appears that quality of rooms varied.  I had an upper deck cabin, but some of the people with “standard” lower cabins were less happy.  I liked the view from my cabin, though I used it only for sleeping.

I think everyone enjoyed the food, however, inlcudig the hand carved fruit from the chef.

There were three main activities.  The first was sea kayaking through the caves.  One additional item I had forgotten (but again, was on my “to pack list”) was a water tight bag for my camera.  This was an unfortunate oversight.  I didn’t take my camera on the kayak in order not to damage it further.  It had already started to give me a bit of trouble after my visit to Mui Ne, perhaps because sand had somehow gotten inside.  Consequently, I missed some fabulous shots from my kayak of the cliffs as well as close ups of the cave tunnels into smaller lagoons.  I should have just taken my camera even without the water tight bag.  I didn't even get wet!

For the second activity, we went to a nearby islet with a small beach.  Others in the boat enjoyed swimming.  The water seemed clean enough to the eye.  I had no desire to push my luck, so I simply climbed to the top of that small mountain for the view.    I guess I didn’t need to buy that swim suit after all.  I saw a few monkeys on the climb, so clutched my camera recalling from other trips where these critters love to steal stuff.  The climb wasn't as arduous as the warning sign would suggest, but the views were spectacular.

For the last activity, we explored the Sung Sot cave.  Compared to my first trip, the authorities made it much easier to explore, with well laid out stepping stones and ample lighting.  The warning sign here had the same cartoon as the beach, but both had spelling well off the mark that made it laughable.  The views from the cave entrance were appealing, but the real attraction was inside.

The first small "cave" I saw was actually filled with, umm, penguin garbage cans that had halted their waddling at the stop sign.  (OK, why do they use penguins here?  I don't know!)  But this led directly to the main cave which was enormous.

Our group spent an hour walking around, including attempts to see “figures” inside the attached stalactites and stalagmites.  For example, this one was a monkey grasping a tree.  Not sure if you can see it.

This one was a finger, but most in our group giggled at what it really resembled.  There is a bit of juvenile in all of us, including whoever did the lighting for this part of the cave.

The locals had set up a floating market right outside the cave.  I stopped and bought a beer, but would have preferred the fresh seafood if I could have had it cooked.

The bay itself is populated with permanent residents who live in various traditional communities that are on the water itself. Overall, I noticed that the lake floating villages were much more vibrant (and more numerous I think) than from my prior trip.  They had also learned valuable commerce lessons, by setting up the kayak shops and other store fronts.  Still, these unique communities added significant character to the bay beyond the natural beauty.

At night, the ship docked in one of the coves, and it was pleasant just sitting on deck talking with my fellow shipmates.  The half moon shone brightly in the skies that had finally cleared up.

Of course, the highlight of the trip was simply cruising around the bay and taking in the beautiful view.  The least interesting formation, IMHO, is the famous "fighting chicken" (alternatively called "kissing birds") twin rocks.  It's on all the postcards, so I felt like I had to snap it.

The bay itself was breathtaking.  Words can't adequately do it justice, so I will just let the photos speak for themselves.  Apologies if they seem repetitive, but to me, each scene was amazing.

Despite Halong Bay’s magnificence, I thought one night was sufficient.  If you want time to “decompress”, then certainly you can spend more nights here; the bay is peaceful despite the crowds.  On the other hand, if your point is to take in the views and appreciate the bay, one night is fine.

Trying to justifying the travel time lead some travelers to either forgo the bay altogether, or stay multiple nights.  From Hanoi, one basically spends 8-9 hours on a bus for about 12-14 waking hours sightseeing on a single night cruise.  I emphatically conclude that my trip was worthwhile.  Despite the 8-9 hour round trip, and despite the crowds, I still found the cruise and the bay peaceful and amazing.  This is notwithstanding the fact that I was here a decade ago.  I’ve seen only one or two other places in the world, such as the sounds in New Zealand’s southern island, that could give Halong Bay a run for the money.  We can debate whether the bay really should be on the top seven natural wonders list, but I don’t think we can debate whether it is worthwhile visiting.

Halong Bay is far from undiscovered, but I suspect that the bay will get more crowded and the experience diminished as time goes on.  So go, and go now.

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