I’ve decided that my favourite state-of-being is to be in motion with the world passing by around me. Train travel is solidly at the top of my list. Taking The Ghan through Australia is one of the most thrilling things I’ve done. I love a road trip and would drive forever. I plan to drive Route 66 some day. And after a fabulous 14-day cruise of New Zealand on the Royal Caribbean Adventure of the Seas the cruise ship life is definitely growing on me. So I needed no encouragement at all to clamber aboard a ‘junk’ to experience UNESCO World Heritage Site Ha Long Bay.
There are many, many, many options for cruising Ha Long Bay, so it was great to have the advice of my in-country tour guides, Ian and Hac of Viet Nam Small Group Tours. “Choose a smaller boat with fewer cabins and don’t pay more than $300 US.” Excellent advice as it turned out. I booked an overnight, all-inclusive cruise with pick up and return from my hotel by Glory Cruises, and was promptly scooped up at 7 AM to join a literal convoy of tour buses heading out on the three and a half hour drive east to Haiphong.
Coming into the departure piers for Ha Long cruises we drove past many, many, many boats – some looking seriously less seaworthy than others. And it became apparent just by looking at the lines of people waiting to board those floating apartment buildings that Ian and Hac’s recommended tour choice was a good one. Some of the largest and least bouyant looking boats offered the same type of cruise that I booked…for as little as $50 US. Those boats are typically booked by young backpackers who don’t worry so much about comfort…and probably never actually get to bed anyway. These are party boats -woohoo! – drinks are not included in the price.
The term ‘junk’ doesn’t really apply…at least to the Glory fleet. They are really just small-scale cruise boats tricked out with Asian-style sails, unfurled to enable picturesque photos while the ship is moored and then stowed before sailing.
There are some 1600 ‘islands’ in Ha Long, many of them the towering limestone karsts found in only a few places in the world. I first saw these formations in the sea in Krabi, southern Thailand and then I saw them again thrust up unexpectedly from the rich agricultural soil of the flat Vinales Valley in Cuba. Could that rich valley once have been underwater, too?
These formations developed over 500 million years of mind-boggling tectonic activity, creating a remarkable array of bio systems. It’s said (by Wikipedia) that “prehistoric humans lived in the area tens of thousands of years ago”. Incredibly, many of the channels into Ha Long Bay were mined during the Viet Nam war.
We sailed out into the Gulf of Tonkin with many other cruise ships but as we entered Ha Long each ship took its turn breaking away from the pack and heading to its designated section of the bay. There is no shortage of nooks and coves to provide the illusion of exclusivity for cruise patrons in spite of significant tourist and commercial traffic.
We weighed anchor on the edge of a circle of soaring karsts and were tendered through into a smooth, still and very quiet bay with small clusters of ‘traditional houses’ and groups of brightly painted fishing boats. At a low mooring barge a cluster of flat skiffs waited to tour us around a ‘fishing village’. Now, it’s true that there have been large villages of indigenous people floating on Ha Long Bay, where for centuries families have made a living off the bay; where people have been born and died without ever setting foot on solid land. And there may still be such villages. This isn’t one of them. This picturesque little scene is mostly uninhabited and looked a little more like a movie set than a place where people actually live. We are told by the cruise staff that ‘only 250 people live in the village’ while the rest have been ‘re-located by the government to protect the environment’.
There is still some fishing going on in the part of the bay we anchored in. Oysters are cultured for their pearls here. They’re known for their high quality, with only the finest used for jewelry. Rejected pearls are ground into powder and used in the many products sold throughout Asia that claim to whiten skin.
We had some free time after the fishing village excursion and before a sumptuous dinner in the ships spacious dining room. Some people bravely dove off the stern of the ship into the bay – not something I’d recommend. I took a kayak out for a paddle and a closer look at the huge karsts.
The evening was remarkably quiet, given the number of big party boats somewhere out there. I did hear and almost see a couple of local boats go speeding by in the pitch black of the night…with no running lights, before I drifted off to sleep.
Next morning, after a seriously complete breakfast I went up on deck to watch us weigh anchor and sail out to join the armada of boats leaving Ha Long Bay – feeling thoroughly sated in every way. Don’t even think about visiting Viet Nam without experiencing Ha Long Bay.