There were no thoughts of Halong Bay when I put Hanoi on my travel agenda. Halong who? What? Where?
However, the instant I mentioned to any of my Hong Kong that I planned a stop in Hanoi, their first response was, “Oh, you must go to Halong Bay. It’s amazing!”
With such unanimous endorsement, how could I refuse? I pulled out the trusty Lonely Planet guide – on loan from a colleague – and crosschecked it with Trip Advisor to come up with a reliable tour operator, then booked my trip.
Two days later, I was on board a mini-bus, one of a group of 16 heading south for an overnight cruise on Halong Bay, three-and-a-half hours south of Hanoi. We were an interesting crew: ages ranging from 21 to 60-something, and quite the mix of nationalities: England, Israel, Austria, Germany, Australia, the U.S. and Canada. A number of my compatriots were on trips of four months or more, some taking a year off from work to see more of the world. Others were “youngsters” travelling before settling into “real life”: one of the Israelis was a young man doing a gap year after finishing his army service.
We arrived at our ship, the Treasure Junk, and were greeted with a welcome drink of fresh mango juice before checking into our cabins. The ship is quite new, appointed in dark wood, with a main passenger deck, a dining deck and a sunbathing deck on top. My cabin was on the dining floor, and I was lucky enough to have a balcony. Worth the splurge to read outdoors after dinner and watch the scenery slip by.
But back to Halong Bay! It is a bay dotted with more than 1,900 limestone rock formations (“islands”) rising steeply from the water. A few have tiny beaches, a few others have caves, and most are dotted with bamboo and other vegetation. It reminded me very much of the Broken Islands, the national park outside Ucluelet on Vancouver Island, minus the whales and sea lions, but the islands here are much greater in number.
The setting is spectacular. As the boat chugged along, there were islands everywhere I turned; at night, we slept anchored in a bay ringed by islands. Absolutely breathtaking.
Even better, we had a sunny day, the first they’d had in weeks! After lunch, everyone changed into sporty gear and bathing suits and set out for a kayaking excursion. I have only been in a kayak once before, in Newfoundland, but luckily, I was teamed up with Carly, a young college graduate from Pennsylvania, who grew up kayaking on rivers near her home. Lucky me – all I was required to do was to paddle – Carly had the chore of steering.
The scenery, which is amazing from shipboard, is just as awesome close up. We churned our way through the passages between islands, and the only sounds were our chatter, our paddles and eagles screaming overhead. After the cacophony of Hanoi, the silence was even more stunning.
We stopped at a small sandy beach to stretch our legs. The water was cold, so no one went for a swim, but I conducted my usual shell hunt. ( I make a point of saving shells from all the beaches I visit, and my oversized brandy snifter is getter fuller by the year.) Surprisingly, I had two fellow shell enthusiasts: a French gentleman and Clare, a teacher from England. So nice to know I’m not the only shell junkie!
We paddled back towards sunset, passing a heron taking flight, and Carly and I enjoyed the setting sun from our kayak. What a treat.
This morning, we started the day with a tai chi lesson on deck and felt suitably energized. It was followed by a trip to a floating village, created by the government to promote fish and pearl farming. Amazing to see the tiny huts built on platforms atop oil barrels that keep them afloat. There’s even a floating school for the children.
We also got a glimpse of cultured pearl production, a process that can take up to three years, with only 30 per cent of the oysters producing pearls, and only 10 per cent of those suitable for jewelry.
After a brunch back aboard ship, it was time, alas, to take a last look at the amazing scenery and hop back aboard the bus for a return to the pace of the city. My colleagues were right: no trip to Hanoi would be complete without an excursion to peaceful, scenic Halong Bay.