Cruising the enchanted bay

In 2008 Steve and I took the first cruise of our lives, down the Nile. There are other waterways we’d liked to cruise some day, but we’ve saving them until we’re older and infirm, unable to handle the rigors of more adventurous travel. We made an exception to that rule for Halong Bay; spent Thursday and Friday nights sleeping on the Treasure.

Our cruising home

It is possible to see the bay on a day boat, but that would be arduous. The bus ride from Hanoi takes more than three and a half hours. We boarded our bus at 8 a.m. Thursday, reached Halong City shortly before noon, and boarded a small pontoon boat that transported us to the junk, a handsome motorized sailing ship that sleeps about 30.

The Treasure was lovely: dark polished wood and rich upholstery, our cabin well-designed and comfortable. Meals consisted of multiple courses, many of them tasty sea creatures freshly harvested from the bay. Steve and I did all the activities: tai-chi lessons on the deck at dawn,

Vietnamese cooking lessons both evenings at 6 p.m. In between, we climbed into a sturdy double ocean kayak and paddled for hours, following our guide around the islands. We paddled to a deserted sand beach (one of the few left in the bay, we learned, due to shellfish farmers stealing the extraordinarily fine-grained sand to use in their aquacultural enterprises.) We toured a sea cave and a floating village, home to about 100 of the bay’s 500 resident fishermen. All of it was fun.
Getting into reed boats for a tour of the fishing village

None of that compared, however, to the pleasure of simply gazing at the staggering beauty surrounding us. Halong Bay has been included on at least one of those recent lists of Seven Natural Wonders of the World. It’s been declared a World Heritage Site on two counts — for nature and beauty. We couldn’t quibble with those designations. The place is as spectacular, in its own way, as the Grand Canyon or Table Mountain in South Africa. What makes it so special are the 1,969 islands that stud it. Composed of highly eroded limestone, what makes them so special, in turn, is their great height. The legend goes that they sprang up from seeds of jade spit out by dragons protecting the local folk from an invading army. Today they’re covered with jade-green plants, and they indeed look magical.

I was somewhat prepared by how splendid the bay would be. What was unexpected was how superbly our expedition company (Handspan Tours) managed to organize our itinerary to keep us out of sight of other cruisers. The first tours of Halong Bay began just 10 or 11 years ago. Steve and I have friends who visited in 2005 and were the only passengers on their junk. Now, however, some 500 tourist boats play the water daily — 300 for daytrippers and 200 for overnight cruisers. I’d read warnings online of how traffic-jammed the bay can seem, marred by the sight of garbage floating on the water. But the Treasure steamed to a relatively pristine section. Once moored, we often were the only visitors in sight.

I’m not a good enough writer to describe the bay and islands adequately. So here are a few digital impressions:

I’m hoping all these photos will upload because the Golden Sun Palace, our hotel in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, has very good wifi. We arrived back late yesterday afternoon and already my neurons are overloaded with the effort to take this place in. I’ll let them calm down, then I’ll try to describe some fraction of it.

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