It was a slightly surreal moment walking out of school for the last time (until HCMC in Feb). We’d been planning our mini break for months, counting down the days ever since we’d handed our notices in. So it was liberating watching the school gates disappear as we hurtled down the road and into 6 weeks of freedom. I think knowing that we’d be teaching again in Ho Chi Minh City took away any feelings of sadness, however there are a handful of cheeky faces we will definitely miss.
It was a wonderful reward knowing the following day we’d be whipped away to Ha Long Bay for an all inclusive three day boating holiday. This trip was a belated Christmas present funded by our families so it was a guilt free splurge.
The journey from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay took 4 hours along bumpy pot-holed roads so we left at 8am on Saturday. The weather changed rapidly as we crept closer to the coast. The warmth of the sun paired with the relief of finishing teaching has tinted our once pasty, gaunt faces a freckled golden brown. We look healthy again! It was also a treat to escape the noise and pollution of the city (Naomi has been developing a chesty cough) and experience the beauty of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Ha Long Bay translates as ‘descending dragon bay’ and features thousands of limestone karsts that jut up out of the ocean as if from nowhere. The bay consists of a dense collection of 1,969 limestone islands (conveniently this is the date that Uncle Ho died) covered in thick jungle vegetation. It has taken the karst landscape over 20 million years to evolve into the distinctive formation that draws in millions of tourists every year. The scenery was just as spectacular as the photos we’d been teasing ourselves looking at, but it was even more jaw dropping sailing underneath the limestone islands that loomed so high above us that they blocked out the sun. It’s no wonder that Ha Long Bay has provided filmmakers with a fantastical and even prehistoric looking location for various adventure movies, including ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ and the new King Kong, ‘Kong: Skull Island’.
Our boat and home for the next two days was just one of 600, all bobbing their way around the bay, jam packed with excited and gaggling tourists (including us). We boarded the boat at midday with about 15 others from Germany, Australia, America, Bali and Canada. We knew Ha Long Bay was a popular destination and rite of passage for many backpackers, and were worried this would spoil the experience. However those entrusted with protecting and managing the bay had gauged its capacity quite well. There was no doubting we were completely surrounded by other boats, but the area didn’t feel overcrowded. The tour company’s run a slick operation here, loading and unloading tourists onto a flawless conveyor belt, working to a strict time schedule.
Many of the islands that make up the iconic landscape are hollow and feature enormous caves. Our first stop after a very generous lunch was Sung Sot Cave, or ‘Amazing Cave’. We followed our tour guide underneath the wave-eroded grottos into a colossal cavern. The cave is an impressive theatre-like dome, decorated with chandeliers of stalactites.
We then made our way to Ti Top Island where we had some free time to enjoy the beach and trek up to a viewing point for an almost aerial view of the bay. Ti Top Island was baptised by Ho Chi Minh, named after the Russian astronaut German Titop (or ‘Gherman Titov’) after his first visit to Ha Long Bay in the 60s. Titop is hailed as the Hero of Labour of Vietnam and serviced the Soviet State, hence his friendship with Ho.
We spent the night sleeping in our cosy cabin ready for an early start on Sunday morning. Our guide took us to an oyster farm where we were talked through the process of pearl cultivation. The pearls themselves were so perfect and white they didn’t look genuine; we preferred the slightly misshaped and discoloured ones as well as their price tags, but there were no purchases made.
Many of the people on our boat left after one night in Ha Long Bay. We were quite smug in the knowledge we had another day left exploring and sailed our way to Cat Ba Island. The weather was even more glorious than the day before and we spent most of our time sunning on the top deck. When we arrived at Cat Ba we hopped on some rusty bikes and cycled 5km into the rugged national park. Cat Ba is home to the most endangered primate, the golden-headed langur, as well as 32 other types of mammal. Although we didn’t see a langur, we did see a cute puppy!
Monkey Island was our final stop of the day; named after the pack of bolshie monkeys that patrol the beach in search of anything they can get their greedy hands on. They literally chased some tourists into the sea as they snatched at cameras, handbags and one disgruntled man’s baseball cap. We managed to keep our distance, instead hiking, or rather rock-climbing, our way to the viewing point at the top of the island. Our guide failed to warn us how treacherous the climb would be as we scrambled at precarious handholds in the rock face to launch ourselves to the summit. There was a very fearless group of slightly overweight, middle-aged French tourists who took on climb without hesitation (conical hats, DSLR cameras and all) putting everyone else to shame. The views were worth the hazardous ascent.
It was time to head to our hotels in Cat Ba Town for the night. The town is slightly odd and a little lacking in atmosphere. There seems to be a lot of development underway with an array of characterless hotels under construction, popping up along the coastline at an alarming rate. There wasn’t much to do or see here, unless you’re in to karaoke; the stop was more just a place to rest our weary heads. It’s a shame that such a beautiful location is wasted on tacky souvenir shops and Western imitation restaurants. It could be so much more but the locals appear to have become overexcited at the novel prospect of a booming tourism industry in their sleepy town.
We were collected in the morning and piled back onto a day boat, sailing our way back to our bus pick up point. The journey back took 8 hours; 4 on the boat and another 4 on the bus. On the way to shore, we passed though a community of around 1,600 people who live on floating villages scattered beneath the limestone islands, sustained through fishing and marine agriculture.
Ha Long Bay is certainly something you have to see for yourselves to really comprehend the beauty and vastness of the landscape. As our brilliant Uncle Ho articulately expresses ‘it’s the wonder that one cannot impart to others’. We hope the pictures do it justice! To see them all, follow the link!