I just returned from a visit to Halong Bay in the Quang Ninh province of North Vietnam. Our lively group of 14 people included Australian, British, German, French, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese tourists. I was the only American. It was one of the best groups in my travels – altogether enjoyable company! Unfortunately I could never get a group photo when everyone was together at one time. The group included families, couples, and solo travelers.
Our Vietnamese guides spoke excellent English and were informative. Being part of a regimented group for a few days reminded me of why I don’t spend more rime traveling that way – we kept a strict fast-paced schedule but it was fun. The lead guide, Heiu, educated us about Vietnam culture. He said with Hanoi’s population of 7 million, there are 4+ million motorcycles! It was time to take a break from Hanoi’s dust and gas fumes. Motorcycles are the preferred means of transportation in Vietnam. It’s extremely expensive to own a car because of governmental fees. Only the wealthiest Vietnamese can afford cars.
Heiu educated us on Vietnamese culture and mentioned that the Vietnamese people believe eating dog meat brings them good luck and that it’s a regular part of their diet. He added that no dog meat would be served during our Halong Bay trip…
It took about four hours by bus to get from Hanoi to Halong Bay and our schedule was busy. Upon arrival we had a Vietnamese lunch, went kayaking through karsts and limestone caves, visited a floating fishing village/boat city, watched a squid fishing demonstration, and attended a cooking class on board our junk. Halong Bay reminded me a little of Milford and Doubtful Sounds in New Zealand. We ate our cooking creation – spring rolls – as a before-dinner hors d’oeuvre.
According to Heiu – the months of August through January are when most Vietnamese marriages occur – with an average age of 18 for the bride and 30 for the groom. Weddings are a big deal in Vietnam and very expensive for parents (guess that’s not news). Those invited to the wedding bring gifts of substance with wedding celebrations lasting at least two days. The exact date of the wedding is very important. A fortune-teller determines the best date for the ceremony based on astrology and the birthdays of the bride and groom. According to Vietnamese culture, incompatible astrological signs are forbidden to marry.
Halong Bay (Vinh Hạ Long in Vietnamese) means descending dragon and there is an ancient story about dragons descending on the area to free the Vietnamese people from ruthless invaders by creating thousands of small islets to confuse and wreck invading ships. Halong bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and recently was named one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.
“Halong Bay features a dense cluster of thousands of limestone karsts and islets with thick jungle vegetation rising from the sea in various sizes and shapes. It is the center of a larger zone which includes Bái Tử Long Bay to the northeast and the Cát Bà Islands to the southwest. These larger zones share similar geological, geographical, geomorphological, climate, and cultural characteristics. Several of the islands are hollow and filled with enormous caves.”
The next day we climbed Tiptop Mountain and enjoyed fantastic views of the Bay. Later we cruised around the islands and some in the group kayaked again and explored more limestone caves. The weather was wet and cold that day.
Approximately 1,600 people live on 1,969 islands in four fishing villages in Halong Bay. They live on floating houses and sustain themselves through fishing and marine aquaculture. Many of the islands are named for their unusual shapes, names include Voi Islet (elephant), Ga Choi Islet (fighting cock), and Mai Nha Islet (roof). Birds and animals including bantams, antelopes, many species of exotic monkey, and lizards live on the islands.
The limestone in Halong Bay went through 500 million years of formation in different conditions and environments. “The evolution of the karst in the bay took 20 million years under the impact of the wet tropical climate. The geo-diversity of the environment created tropical evergreen, oceanic, and seashore biosystems. Halong Bay is home to 14 endemic floral species and 60 endemic fauna species.”
Three hundred sixty-six of the islands in the Halong Bay form Cát Bà Archipelago which makes up the southeastern edge of Halong Bay. “Approximately half of Cát Bà Island’s area is a National Park, which is home to the highly endangered and illusive Cát Bà Langur Monkey. The island has a variety of natural ecosystems, both marine and terrestrial, leading to incredibly high rates of biodiversity. Types of natural habitats found on Cát Bà Archipelago include:
- Limestone karsts
- Tropical limestone forests
- Coral reefs
- Mangrove and seagrass beds
- Willow swamp forests
Cát Bà is one of the largest islands in Halong Bay, with roughly 13,000 people living in six different communes, and 4,000 more inhabitants living on floating fishing villages off the coast.”
The in-depth tour of Cát Bà includes accommodation in a hotel on the island instead of cruising on a junk.
Another interesting excursion was visiting Sung Sot and Luon Caves – absolutely amazing to see. Sung Sot Cave (Cave of Surprises) is on Bo Hon Island and is the largest cave grotto in Halong Bay. The cave was supposedly named after a French admiral surprised at the size of the cave. You must climb up a steep paved stone path to reach the cave which has two chambers. The “waiting room” is the outer chamber and the inner room is the “serene castle” . The stalactite and stalagmite formations in the caves take on many shapes, including sentries, animals, the Buddha, and a military general surveying his troops.
“The light reflected from the moving water outside the caves causes the formations inside the chamber to seemingly come alive. According to the locals, this was the reason the cave was named Sung Sot, from the awe-stricken reaction of the visitors to the cave.”
The only negative to our trip was the cold, foggy, drizzly January weather which continued and made Halong Bay mysterious and beautiful but us a little uncomfortable. The weather in northern Vietnam this year is unseasonably cold (the locals dislike it more than the tourists). I leave in a few days to travel down toward the southern part of the country and am hoping the weather is warmer. Some in our group reluctantly continued on to Sapa for trekking and backpacking unsure how much colder and wetter the weather might be. I’m looking forward to warmer weather in Hue and Hoi An.