With my teaching schedule filling up again Sue and I decided we should grab the opportunity of two days in a row off and book a trip to Ha Long Bay (aka Halong Bay), a UNESCO World Heritage site. We returned to our friends at the Camellia Hotel and they booked us on an Open Tours two day, all inclusive, junk excursion.
Saturday morning we rode our bikes to the Camellia and were then led to the tour bus. We joined about a dozen other travelers on the bus and headed off for Ha Long. The bus trip took three hours plus with a break at a ‘Tourist Stop’, a large gift store/refreshment centre about half way.
The place was packed with goods for sale, including a whole glassed-off section (on the left in the photo) for jewelry. Snacks were twice what we’d pay in Hanoi, but still it was nice to get off the bus for a break. The bus zoomed along the road, through endless towns with patches of farmland in between, hitting bumps at speed so we all rose off our seats, and with the inevitable endless honking and beeping as it swerved in and out passing and dodging other vehicles. Gradually the landscape began to change as we saw karst mountains rearing up along the horizon.
On the edge of Ha Long City we disembarked at the tourist wharf to board our junk, the Imperial, parked amongst hundreds of other junks.
On the junk we were assigned our rooms (very nice! with ensuite bathrooms) and had a drink and snack while departing. Soon we were out of the packed waters around the tourist wharf and motoring out amongst the thousands of karst islands for which Ha Long Bay is famous. Our first stop was to view two large caves. I knew there were caves but I had no idea of the size. They were huge with enormous rock formations dwarfing the people trekking through them. Although very touristic, with coloured lights and manmade pathways, the lights helped pick out individual formations and the pathways kept the hundreds (thousands, millions?) of tourists in line, helping prevent damage (although just breathing in such limestone caves can cause damage).
Yes, there are people in the above photo… look at the lower centre portion of the photo and you’ll see a stairway going up to the left with little people ascending. I took many, many photos in the caves. The lightening really helped as I didn’t have to use a flash, therefore the coloured lights really highlighted the formations, adding depth and dimension. Here’s a shot looking straight up:
We spent an hour or more in the caves, constantly being overwhelmed by the scale and spectacular vistas. One of the caves we were in had only been discovered in the ’90s by a fisherman seeking shelter. I imagined what it must have felt like for him to be in such a huge cavern with, probably, only a small light. What a find!
We returned to the junk and resumed our journey amongst the hundreds of islands. Most of us lounged on the upper deck, catching what sun there was and enjoying the passing scenery.
We passed several floating villages, homes to local fisherman and fish farmers. We could see the openings on the decks of the float homes where fish were raised. I’ve read that the Vietnamese ocean fishery has pretty much collapsed; now people mainly farm the fish in these small pens. One question on our minds was how clean is the water in Ha Long Bay with all the tour boats and float homes? We saw one boat going around picking garbage out of the water but we also saw a lot of garbage strewn about in the water and on beaches. Our junk seemed to have septic holding tanks but we suspected that many people just flushed into the ocean.
As the tide was at a good height we were able to disembark onto a small boat and take a short side-trip to explore a couple of interior saltwater lakes. The access to these is through openings in the rock, which lead from the islands’ outer shore to the interior lakes.
Here’s a video Sue shot which we’ve posted on YouTube:
It was very spectacular (a word used a lot on this day!) going through the opening into the island’s centre, drifting around and looking way up to the island’s high peaks surrounding us. It reminded me of the exotic film locations of film adventures like 20,ooo Leagues Under the Sea, Our Man Flint or a Bond film. We visited two of these interior lakes and then were taken back to our boat.
Every time we stopped small boats rowed by women would approach our junk selling produce, fruit and snack food. I had to wonder how much business they did as our boat provided us with lots of good food.
Once again we set off, this time heading for our overnight moorage.
As you can see it was a fairly overcast day, which did add a bit of atmospheric haze to the seascape. But as the sun set it burst through adding some dramatic light to the scene.
We anchored out in a bay with a number of other junks and had a scrumptious dinner (although one vegetarian in our group did have trouble finding which foods might be acceptable). After dinner some of our company dropped lines over the stern, but all we saw were small fish, the largest being about 9in. It was fun to watch the fish in the stern light of the boat and the fishermen were not too serious about catching anything.
We returned to our cabin, opened the window to the fresh ocean breezes and had a good night’s sleep. What a delight being on the ocean again!