A mind-boggling 2,000 islets and karst peaks covering more than 1,500 square kilometers makes Ha Long Bay one of the undisputed wonders of the natural world. Fragmenting from the side of north-west Vietnam, its chiseled spires of limestone rock, sloshing seas and breathtaking geological formations rarely fail to draw a gasp. Trips here are the stuff of bucket lists and are always right up there on the best Vietnam itineraries. We're never left in doubt that it's one of the single most amazing places on Earth whenever we head back.
Ancient Vietnamese myths say that the tails of powerful dragons are what carved out the great clefts of rock and deep ocean valleys of Ha Long Bay. Descended from the heavens, those mighty beasts came to help Vietnam in its time of need. It's easy to see why the place is seen as such a playground of demigods. It really is out of this world; a place to imagine legends and see the work of deities in the anthropomorphic peaks.
Thoughts of mystical beasts put to one side, I head to Ha Long Bay early. You have to get there early. This is one of the busiest attractions in Vietnam, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a prestigious chart-topper on lists of the Seven Wonders of the World – or some of them, at least. Of course it draws crowds – crowds to the tune of 5.5 million people a year, in fact.
But its vastness should be enough to spread the photo-taking crowds. At least that's what I hope as I hop aboard an old junk boat that's bound for the middle of Ha Long's handsome bay. I get on in a bustling marina where lines of panting coaches laden with Nikon-toting tour groups seem to pull up every second. There are rows and rows of salt-washed boats bobbing along the quays, and nowhere near enough Vietnamese tour guides to organize them all. Still, that's not a worry of mine as my ship is unmoored and begins to drift outwards into the sparkling shore waters of the South China Sea.
The wonders start right from the get go on a boat trip through Ha Long Bay. They begin the moment you look up, really. Lines of chiseled peaks soar like a phalanx of rock in the distance. They clamber over each other and out of the sea like petrified giants, towering up above the bay, looming in the cloudless sky. Their serrated tops can be seen lining the edge of Cat Ba Island in the distance. That's the very heart of Ha Long Bay, a place of countless rock spires topped with pockets of jungle and forest, trodden by rare species like the protected golden-headed langur – you'll need to keep your eyes peeled for them.
The hours drift on but the landscapes don't get any easier to digest. At every turn of the rudder and shift of the bow, Ha Long proves itself to be a real breath-taker-awayer. I don't even want to blink as the deck swings eastwards and delves into a wide gap between two hulking mountains. The silhouettes of birds of prey whizz this way and that over the forested tops of the summits, the sea shimmers a mirror-like hue beneath the coastal cliffs, adding the illusion of depth, making it seem as if I'm sailing on a ribbon of light, on cloud, on mist between waves of craggy mountains. I can see other boats here, too. They are my anchor back in the real world; the only reminder that I'm still traveling on Earth not transcending to somewhere gravity-defying.
One of the highlights of my trip is a self-guided kayaking session amid the needle-like spires of Ha Long Bay. I hop into a little canoe and am soon carving a wake in the water, weaving between faces of cliff and stony arches away from my boat. Discoveries abound. Here there's a hidden little cove of sparkling pebbles and turquoise seas. There is a cave, chipped into the sea-washed mountains over millions of years, dank, deep and lived in by shadows and monkeys and shells. Then there's an islet, jutting like a piece of gnarled driftwood from the water with its boulder-rimmed ridges and stone shelves.
Back on the deck of the main boat, I survey where I've been exploring. It's hardly what seems. I can just make out a wall of rock, but my post-kayak muscles know there's a maze hidden in there. Little channels and coves and tunnels are everywhere between the spires. I can't see them now, but I know they exist, hosting pebble beaches and shady caverns. There are parts where the sea shimmers an aquamarine blue-green, glinting with the descending sunbeams coming down from above. There are other parts where the shadows of club-like mountains dance in the sunlight, creating the silhouettes of geomorphic creatures on the surface of the South China Sea.
Another episode of drama follows the first – episodes of drama flow and fuse together seamlessly in this awe-inspiring corner of Asia. As the kayaks are reeled in, the sunset begins. Spreading out across the tops of Cat Ba Island, the rays of the sun go pink and red and yellow. They filter through a mesh of mountains, illuminating the palm fronds and the pockets of jungle in hues of green as they glitter across the landscape. There's no blinking allowed when the twilight reaches Ha Long. Just a moment and you could miss it: the shimmer of yellow light against the grey limestone of a colossal cliff; the glow of a red-pink illumination over a turquoise bay; the dreamy diffusion of fluorescent sunlight and its silver lining around the countless spires of rock.
Then the sun is gone and darkness commands the dome above Ha Long Bay. The stars come out, twinkling like salt grains in a grand universe. The coastal cliffs are encased in shadows now. As the boat moves, it's a montage of black figures and looming stone specters that it navigates. The moon sometimes pops up, half-shrouded in cloud, half-obscured by Ha Long's dragon-forged summits. There's really no describing the feeling of isolation in the vastness of nature that comes with a twilight cruise through this Vietnamese wonderland.
Morning comes with a reverse-repeat of the night before. The sun peaks above the eastern horizon early. I can't see it, but I know it's there. Regimented rows of bluffs stand in the way, but golden rays trigger through them here and there as if to say "hello, another day comes to Ha Long Bay". It couldn't come too soon for me. The creeping shadows of the mighty crags and precipices of the area by night is a brooding, spooky, spine-tingling business. You hear something stir in the water and feel the encroaching power and awesomeness of nature all around. There's no escape. Until the sun rises, that is.
When the light floods properly across Ha Long Bay once more, I see that we've navigated deep into the palisades that fragment from the coast of Cat Ba Island. Between a series of bluffs on one side of the boat, I can make out some crooked seaside shacks and stilted fishing huts all clustering along a stretch of pebbly sand. It's the perfect taste of civilization after a night in the shadows.
We continue on through the forest of buttes, gliding like a ghost ship with a backing track of gasps, "umms", "awws", and "wows". No one stops looking up and around as the mountains peak and trough in a montage of stone stacks and hoodoo-like mesas. Thousands of them, crowding and towering atop the water wherever you are.
I swim and sunbathe later in the day. The people watching of beaches is replaced with mountain viewing from the deck. It's an amazing place to top up the Southeast Asian tan – not your usual Thai island or seaside resort, but rather an unending theatre of chiseled stone eminences that shoot straight from the South China Sea. Pretty cool, eh?
Finally, the boat reaches the very depths of the UNESCO bay and begins to swivel around. As it draws the sail and purrs its engine against the wash of the sky-blue water, I turn to grab one last glance at the very heart of Ha Long. "What a place," I think, awestruck and still, petrified and amazed by the outlines of so many hulking mountains, some nameless, some hailed as demigods.
The boat flows back to the marina and leaves a lost wake in the valley behind it. I wonder at the sheer scale of it all, the sheer majesty of so many mountains, untouched by man, unscathed by the wash of the ocean. I peer down great holes in the rock and sit astonished at the forest-clinging ridges, thinking it is a land carved by dragons, after all.
Ha Long Bay is one of the most awesome sights we visit on our Vietnam Explorer travel itinerary. In total, we spend three days exploring the vast UNESCO World Heritage Site, weaving in and out of its great peaks and watery bays on a boat. One night is spent on the boat itself, another is spent camping on one of the 2,000 islands. You'll get up-close to the colossal peaks and get plenty of chances to explore them on various excursions. If you're looking for a more fly-in visit to check off Ha Long from the bucket list, our shorter Vietnam Discovery trip is an option, while combo tours that include visits to other enthralling Southeast Asian countries – Indo, Thailand – are also on the menu.
"Rich is a traveler, writer and filmmaker who's always after somewhere new to go. He's been hopping around the globe since 2011, from Poland to Paris, Mumbai to Ho Chi Minh. He runs several travel sites of his own, from Ski Eastern to Live Krakow to Crabs Move Sideways. When he's not planning his next trip, he's usually listening to 50s jazz, surfing in Wales, skiing in the Alps, or just swigging (too much) great craft beer."
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