There is a magical place in north-east Vietnam, that is renowned for its emerald waters and thousands of towering limestone islands, capped with lush rainforests. Just a three and a half hour drive from Hanoi, the best way to enjoy this UNESCO World Heritage site is on a boat cruise!
Travelling with our friends Carol and Roy is always an adventure and Roy had made reservations for us on an exquisite cruise boat forming part of the luxurious Emeraude line. Limited to just 80 passengers, the ship is modeled after a turn-of-the-century paddle steamer and evokes a time when travel was synonymous with style and leisure.
The name Ha Long means “descending dragon”. Legend has it that during the old times when the country was newly formed, the Vietnamese had to fight against fierce invaders coming from the North through the sea. Feeling sorry for the country, The Jade Emperor sent the Mother Dragon and her children to earth to help the ancient Vietnamese people defend their country.
While the mighty enemies were attacking the main land, the Mother Dragon and her children suddenly appeared and incinerated the enemies with their divine fire and giant emeralds. The emeralds from the dragon’s mouth were scattered around the battlefield on the sea and formed an invincible defensive wall that led to the sinking of the enemy battleship fleet. Thanks to the dragons, the Northern invaders were finally swept away and peace was restored to the South East Asian country once again. Over thousands of years, the wall of emerald turned into islands of different sizes and shapes.
After the battle, the Mother Dragon and her children didn’t go back to heaven, but remained in the mortal world, turning into human forms and helping people with their crops and planting, raising of cattle, and reclaiming and expanding the country. (www.halongbay.info)
Ha Long Bay covers an area of about 1,553 square kilometers and has anywhere between 1,960–2,000 islets, most of which are made of limestone, worn down by millions of years of tropical downpours. Some of the islands are hollow, creating majestic caves, a few of which have their own internal lakes.
We set sail in the afternoon and enjoyed lounging on steamer deck-chairs, drinking cocktails and admiring the breath-taking scenery. As you get deeper into the Ha Long Bay area, the perfect surroundings somehow get even more picturesque. Sunset provides that extra-special golden light and diamond sparkle on the water that is undeniably romantic. Roy and Geoff found time for a quick sunset kayak trip before a sumptuous dinner.
As soon as the cruise-boat is at anchor, vendors come paddling over in their boats that are brimming with souvenirs and snacks.
Halong Bay’s grottos and caves make up a unique ecosystem attracting millions of visitors every year due to the area’s distinctive geomorphology. Cong Do Island, one of the many islets that populate Bai Tu Long Bay, is home to Thien Canh Son Cave.
Our boat took us to the shore of the island, where we were invited to disembark and begin a climb up the 60-odd steps to the entrance of the cave which is small and unassuming and gives no indication of what is held within. After ducking into the entrance and following the downward sloping path we found ourselves in an enormous series of caves. Colourful lights contribute to the drama of the cave interior. Thien Canh Son Cave is comprised of three caverns in total, each one strewn with stalactites and stalagmites.
After the cave visit it was a delight to return to the sanctuary of our boat for lunch and some relaxation.
We set sail again and headed towards a pearl farm, passing floating villages. These villages are comprised of communities that live their daily lives right on top of the emerald waters of the bay. The children here typically learn to swim before they can walk! Many of the village people are employed in the cultivation and harvesting of the pearls at the pearl farm.
I am so glad that we decided on the overnight cruise. A day trip would simply not have done justice to the experience. Watching the light gently fading into dusk and the long shadows shifting against the hulking limestone cliffs at sunset, is indescribably beautiful. Seeing the vast canopy of stars forming after dark in the blissful silence is truly spectacular. The only sound is that of the boat swishing through the water and at bedtime, it really lulls you to sleep and nothing can possibly be more relaxing.