Retro: Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Some places are just too beautiful for words.  So I’m going to use a combination of words and pictures.  Original concept, I know. 

If you ever end up in Hanoi and don’t make it to Ha Long Bay, you’re missing out.

We set ourselves up through a company called “Oriental Sails” (seems right) and, even though we got picked up later than we were supposed to, which then resulted in us leaving even later because I had run off to make a phone call to the company, asking where they were, that was the only major hiccup in the whole process.

It takes a little over three hours to get to Ha Long Bay and, I’m not going to lie to you – I was a bit apprehensive at first.  At lot of hustle and bustle to get there, tonnes of people at the docks, a general “Hurry up” feel before we got on to the boat.  I thought we were joining up on a big old tourist train and we wouldn’t be getting the peace and quiet we wanted. 

Thankfully, I was wrong.

The minute you get out on the water, everything gets real serene.  You slowly start to peel away from other boats in the Bay and, while you can still see them in the distance, and you know you’re not the only one out there, you still feel like you have your own space. 

I should note that, like most cruises, the quality of people that you’re with is kind of left to fate.  Fortunately, fate was kind to us this trip.  Laird and I immediately started up a conversation with a French family (in French, mind you), we met Katelyn and Neil, a great couple from Saskatchewan, Daina’s home province, and a cool Aussie couple in Marek and Tiffany.  The rest of the crowd was pretty chill as well, and I think Daina, Laird and I represented the average age, so that wasn’t a bad thing, either.

Once we got our rooms figured out, we had a short briefing on the boat and the sights we’d be seeing, including a pretty cheeseball video about the bay which, if you had seen it before you came, might actually turn you off of going.  That bad. 

Soon, though, things started to turn around.  The first “memorable” set of rocks (limestone karsts, would be the actual name) were  the “Kissing Cocks” or “Fighting Cocks” or “Two Cocks” or “Something Something Darkside Cocks”.  Basically, two roosters fighting or making out, depending on who you listen to.  Everybody responded to the name with the utmost maturity, to be sure, but they were pretty impressive to look at. 

There were other formations along the way, but to be truthful, the Cocks are the only ones that stuck in my head after the trip. The thing about Ha Long Bay is that you don’t have to see a particular shape in a karst in order to recognize how awesome the view is. 

You’re cruising a nice, tranquil bay with hundreds of these rocks jutting up from the water, dark greys dotted with green amongst the blue.  There aren’t many other places on the planet where you can see this kind of stuff.  Yeah, the illusion can sometimes be broken by another junk going by, or a “traditional” boat pulling up to sell you bags of chips or bottles of Coca-Cola, but Ha Long Bay is comparable to Alaska or the Norwegian Fjords in terms of constant, beautiful background scenery. 

The only difference is, you can actually get off and do things in the Bay.

For instance, the unoriginally, yet appropriately, named “Amazing Cave”.

 It is a cave.

It is amazing!


So it actually does a have a Vietnamese name – Sung Sot – which translates to “Amazing” or “Surprising”, depending on who you’ll ask. I’m going to stick with Amazing. Obviously, the lighting isn’t quite natural, but the different structures inside are pretty “amazing” to look at. Much like the rocks outside, you get the “parts of the cave that look like something else”, including one rock that definitely looks a big phallic, which our guide pointed out to us, giggling as he used the word “penis” like he was twelve.

Well, good for you.

 It’s a slippery, but scenic walk, and you get to see some marquee views of the bay, such as this photo.  You’re definitely on a bit of a tourist walk while you’re in there – not the paved path in the first picture – but it’s definitely worth it for the view along.  Surprisingly amazing. 

Once you’ve gone through the cave, it’s time to get back to the boat. We got to lounge around a little bit before they offered us a chance to kayak in the bay. More specifically, inside one of the karsts, which was more or less a crater that you could enter from the side. I’d imagine it would be out of bounds during a rainier day, but we had a solid amount of time paddling and you couldn’t beat the view from the inside, either.

Back  to the junk again and it was definitely getting close to “down time”. However, rather than rest up from what had already been a big day, everybody decided it’s “jump in the water” time and, within minutes, we’re leaping off of the first, second and third level and (in Laird’s case) the roof of the junk! My love of heights and lack of leaping ability kept me on the edge of the third, but that didn’t dull the experience, or the amount of water I got up my nose. It made for a great end to a fantastic day

Of course, the night had just started, and the crew of the boat were taking great care of us, making some phenomenal meals along the way and carving out an intricate little pineapple and using it as a Jack-o-Lantern so they could present us… spring rolls.  Not as amazing the food (or Amazing Cave), but a great example of the thought counting, etc.

The rest of the night was spent playing cards in French, where “Celine Dion” became a swear word (as well it should!), having a few beers under the starlit sky, before being rocked to sleep by waves. True story, actually what happened.

Most peaceful sleep I’ve ever had on a boat or ship ever.

The next day was pretty tame compared to the first, as the big stop was a floating village.  A few hundred people living on floating houses, the place was an actual functioning village, featuring a school, stores, a doctor’s office and a the sounds of electricity through generators.  The most amazing part, though, came before the village, when a boat basically ran an intercept course on us and a little girl jumped off, landed on the side of our boat with the agility of a monkey, and started trying to sell us what looked like mother of pearl.  No takers, though she did get a couple of coins just for hopping aboard.  Oddly enough, I actually saw this girl in the vacation photos of a friend of mine a few years later.  Selling the same shell.

Third World Problems.  Although, technically, Vietnam would be second world, if that designation still applied. 

Look it up.

After the floating village, we picked up speed and started to make our way back to the harbor at a much quicker speed than we moved out at.  Gotta pick up the next round of passengers, I guess.  Bus ride back to Hanoi and our time in Ha Long Bay was over.
So it’s touristed, and it might not be the easiest to get away on your own, depending on your time and budget.  However, it is totally worth it to see.  I can’t think of many more naturally impressive places on the planet, or heavily touristed places where you can kind of get the illusion that you’re (mostly) alone.  If you’re in Vietnam, get to the north, get to Hanoi and, definitely, get to Ha Long Bay. 

Get ready for some surprisingly amazing spring rolls.

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