Our ship glides through the water the color of jade, a deep creamy stone green, sailing past Cat Ba Island, home to one of Vietnam’s largest national parks. Occasional ripples cut the smooth glass surface, shimmering as though a million tiny sardines are fleeing a hungry predator.
Hundreds of limestone karst formations look like giant green coated gumdrops dropped into the sea, creating a dramatic watery landscape. Whittled away over centuries by wind and water, they’re breathtaking. Most are monolithic mounds with sheered rock walls shooting straight up. Hardy determined trees sprout from their sides and birds roost on or among them.
We’re in Halong Bay, Vietnam, one of the world’s most beautiful places. An iconic image of Vietnam, this place has serious mystique. With a thousand bays and inlets, our ship chooses a lesser used route sailing through the Thoi Quyt area, past the Coc Ngoi islet and then through the Gia Luan area, part of the Cat Ba National Park.
This popular destination in the Quang Ninh Province, 165 kilometers northeast of Hanoi, is known as the Land of Dragons. According to Vietnam legend, the Heavenly God sent a mother dragon and her offspring to the region to fight off invaders. The flock of dragons spat many pearls into the sea, forming thousands of rocky islands to block the enemy. The attacking ships smashed against the rocks, destroying their fleet. The name “Ha Long” means Descending Dragon. The name “Bai Tu Long” means Young Dragons Attending to Their Mother. And the place where the dragons splashed water with their tails is called “Back Long Vi” or The Tail of the White Dragon.
The islands have been here so long, water has eroded them three feet or more around their bases. At low tide, you can easily see just how significantly nature has carved them away. The famous and most photographed – Finger Island – looks like it would topple over in a storm. Occasionally we sail past small beaches and caves.
Cruise ships from Halong Bay range from budget boats filled with backpackers to sleek, multi-storied modern yachts. We’re on Orchid Cruise ship #1. For three days and two nights, we’ll explore this UNESCO World Heritage site.
There are 18 luxury cabins on this gorgeous cruise ship. Each room features floor-to-ceiling and end-to-end windows, including the bathroom. Even the bathtub looks out over the water. A comfortable balcony provides a serene spot to sit and watch this magical scene float by.
We start our cruise heading to Da Chong islet, passing a lighthouse built by the French over 100 years ago. Our first meal is an international buffet lunch served in a spacious dining room. It’s hard to sit still as we pass the islets of Con Vit, and the beauty of Halong Bay unfolds. It’s almost impossible to resist the charm of Halong Bay’s majestic natural landscape. The union of the sky, mountains, and ocean here provide miraculous panoramas.
After lunch, we head to Cat Ba Island to explore the 2000-year-old Trung Trang Cave. Cat Ba is named for the “old woman” who trained Kung Fu warriors on this island. Full of glistening stalactites that have been dripping for millions of years, the cave winds 300 meters deep through the mountains of Cat Ba National Park. Some openings in the cave are so low, visitors have to stoop to pass through, but exploring it is fascinating!
After we return to the ship, the captain sails us to nearby Tra Bau. This deserted beach offers us the perfect opportunity to swim in Lan Ha Bay’s cool emerald waters.
In the evening we relax on deck with a glass of wine before dining on a gourmet meal of hot and sour soup, mango salad with beef, grilled prawns and sautéed snapper. Adjourning to the top deck, we watch the sunset over the Gulf of Tonkin, then join the other passengers in night squid fishing.
With the ship anchored in a peaceful bay, sleep comes easily tonight in our comfortable bed. We have to rise early for tai chi on the upper deck.
Refreshed, we dine on a sumptuous buffet breakfast with fresh fruit, an abundant charcuterie board, omelets or eggs prepared to order, muffins, Danish rolls, croissants, a salad bar, and a generous offering of hot Vietnamese stir-fries and rice. Guests can even indulge in a delicious bowl of Pho, the traditional broth of vegetables and noodles.
Today we’re heading to the other side of Cat Ba Island to visit Viet Hai village. Bicycles are ready for those who want to get some exercise, but electric cars are also available.
Although Vietnam is a developing country, the Viet Hai village demonstrates how a community can work together to feed itself. Their community garden is abundant with cauliflower, strawberries, pumpkin, green beans, and sweet potatoes. Villagers raise chickens and pigs. Proud locals run small snack shops where tour guides take groups for a drink, a break, and an introduction to local life. Here, we learn about the Cat Ba Langurs, an endangered monkey species found only on this island.
Locals demonstrate food preparation and local wine-making including snake, flower, and banana wine. A few brave souls sampled the snake wine.
Next, the captain sets sail for another peaceful, uncrowded cove. Once the boat is anchored, we witness more of the Vietnamese entrepreneurial spirit. A woman in a rowboat comes up to the side of our boat peddling wares. “You want wine, you want wine?” she calls out. She’s selling Vietnamese wine, a sweet and fruity beverage. She also sells nuts, cookies, caramel corn, and other snacks.
Water is a way of life here. Floating villages crop up in sheltered inlets, along island coasts. Banded together with the most tenuous of materials, we wonder how these outcroppings fare in a terrible storm.
Before dinner, we head up to the deck for a Vietnamese cooking lesson. A refreshing cocktail whets our appetite for another gourmet meal. Tonight’s menu features pumpkin soup, mixed green salad with a balsamic vinaigrette, grilled spareribs with stir-fried vegetables and a revitalizing dessert of ripe pineapple, watermelon and dragon fruit (so fitting!).
On our final morning, we awake early to enjoy a few last hours of the magical scenery. Guests are invited to kayak before breakfast in this serene setting. Kayaks depart in groups of three or four, disappearing around small islands and reappearing again just in time to pull up anchor.
We finish our morning with a hearty breakfast, then up on deck, participate in a tea ceremony attended by many of the gracious staff. We start our slow sail past Cat Ba Island, back to civilization, filled with memories of beautiful, peaceful Halong Bay.
Ethereal Halong Bay is considered by many to be the Eighth Wonder of the World. For us, it is a place apart. The backdrop of the bay’s magnificent scenery as well as the dramatic limestone cliffs and rock formations, rising from the water like a dragon’s back, provide you with the perfect setting for a memorable sojourn.
Pamela and Gary Baker are freelance food, wine and travel writers based in Northern California. They’ve written for regional, national and international magazines and websites including Via Magazine, Washington Tasting Room, Porthole Cruise, Northwest Travel and Life, A Luxury Travel Blog, International Living, and Australia and New Zealand Magazine. Read more of their stories at PamandGaryBaker.com.
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