Leaving the majestic mountains of Sapa I surmised anywhere else we visited in Vietnam would be hard pressed to be comparable, let alone excede in beauty; but I was being set up for a big surprise because my traveling partners had arranged for the next stop to be Halong Bay. Located 100 miles east of Hanoi, Halong Bay consists of over 3000 limestone formations (karsts) rising out of the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin.
Because of the distance, we left our Hanoi hotel bright and early to pick-up one other couple who would join us in the charted van for three-day, two night cruise on a Chinese “Junk” replica named “The Prince” (interestingly, given the name, I thought this boat could just have easily been named “Alan”). Neither Peg, Barbara nor the Prince could have guessed that the couple joining us would be named Skip and Lucy, living just north of St. Petersburg, Florida! AND Skip went to the same junior high school at the same time that Peg attended. For the first hour, I was destined to just sit and listen to continuous junior high stories and “did you know” queries (in my considerable story repertoire, there is not a single junior high story worth remembering or reporting). So the five new buddies set off for their four-bedroom home on the water for the next few days and couldn’t wait to set eyes on Halong Bay. We would not be disappointed as 90 minutes later when crossing a bridge, the sparkling Bay opened up before us in all her splendor.
Legend has it Halong Bay was formed by a dragon’s flailing tail which gouged valleys and crevasses and when this dragon plunged into the sea, the entire area filled with water. I think it is a true story because I don’t know how else it could have happened. The entire region consists of highly concentrated biological diversities such as salt water-flooded tropical forests, and coral reefs. It seems all the formations produce various images and colors, and many vistas look like water color works of art. Georgeous does not have enough letters to adequately describe the awesome sight. All this on a boat whose staff outnumbered guests…where every meal was not only delicious, but a also a feast for the eyes. Could there be life moments more invigorating than waking in your king-bed suite and gazing upon these limestone formations? I don’t think so. Highlights included visiting a floating village and meeting the “mayor” who hosted a ceremonial greeting which included toasting and sharing of corn whiskey, kayaking for Barbara, Skip and Lucy (Peg and I do not kayak together…we have directional issues) and a gourmet lunch served to us on a private beach. Spoiled? Yes indeed!
The World Heritage Foundation highlighted three tropical “karst” areas for their individual beauty…Halong Bay, Phang Nga Bay in southern Thailand which we were fortunate enough to visit on a previous trip, and Libo County in southern China. How’s the song go…”two out of three ain’t bad” and someday it would be a thrill to visit the missing formations in China.
On our last morning the Captain informed us of an impending typhoon heading our way which was predicted to hit the Halong Bay area within the next 24 hours, and that we were heading back to port because the crew needed to prepare the boat for the storm and travel to their safe harbor. After reaching the City of Halong and waiting for our transportation, we talked with people whose cruise had just begun and was suddenly cancelled because of the weather. Fortunately for us, our timing was perfect and now we can look back to the beautiful weather we had seeing Halong Bay in all her splendor. Over a hundred years ago, the French journalist John Rey gazed upon her waters and wrote…”In the brilliant light of the tropical sun, the sea surface, dark and light, here and there in the shadow of limestone mountains, is really an indescribable, fanciful scene. Sunset looks like a flaring fire, throwing all the islands into a fairyland.” In my opinion, Halong Bay is not to be missed when traveling in Vietnam.
[Author’s Note: In Hanoi, we stayed at the Jasmine Hotel. When they knew we were about to travel to both Sapa and Halong Bay, returning to Hanoi in between, the staff generously offered to keep our unneeded luggage and laundry while we traveled. On both occasions we were given a room to rest and shower for a few hours before leaving again, for no charge. This convenience was a huge help in making the transfer from one location to another proceed as smoothly as possible. I cannot think of another place I have traveled which would have done the same. We three owe them a debt of gratitude.]