Longing to travel in Vietnam? This 7 part series, which travels from Hanoi in the north to the Mekong Delta in the south, will entice you to experience Vietnam’s vibrancy and beauty; meet its resilient and hospitable people and marvel at their ability to blend calm serenity with seeming chaos … and make it all work.
Getting There and Back
Halong Bay is 180km (107 miles) from Hanoi; about a 4 hour drive (one way). There are shuttle buses available (approx. $40-50 USD per person), however if there is more than one person travelling together, consider hiring a private vehicle with driver for two days and one night. They offer door to door service, more privacy, more room, more comfort and the ability to stop as you desire. (Cost: approximately $150 USD up to 4 people / $170 up to 8. Extending your time: $200 for 3 days and 2 nights for 8.)
It is not necessary to return to Hanoi along the same roads as going and urge you to take a different route back. Catching glimpses of people going about their daily work is a special joy of travelling and this round trip will give you much to see. Being able to stop for tea, a stretch, photo-ops, sight-seeing, or perhaps to shop, are bonuses of hiring a private vehicle.
The name Halong (or Ha Long) from ancient Vietnamese means ‘descending dragon’, referring to Mother Dragon and her children when they saved the country from mighty enemies attacking in battleships. After using their divine fire to drive back and sink enemy ships, they built a defensive wall which later crumbled into 1600 limestone islands and islets. Though relatively stable, most of the islands are uninhabited.
The Bay is now under the protection of National, Provincial and local governments as well as UNESCO World Heritage Convention.
Three traditional floating villages in Ha Long Bay comprise approximately 400 households with 1700 people whose livelihoods depend on fishing and aquaculture; children as young as 5 are adept at handling fishing nets. Their dwellings serve as home, transport and source of income. The village (in photo above) has a school and medical facilities. These tight-knit communities live in a fragile ecosystem; fluctuating economic conditions, rising sea-levels, cultural demands, education needs, pollution and competition between fishermen, all put pressure on community.
For a closer look, rowed boats and/or kayaks tours can be arranged.
A Different Kind of Junk Food
You may well find yourself slipping passed numerous limestone islands which rise abruptly out of Halong Bay while sitting at a dining table covered with white linens sipping Vietnamese red wine and green tea, savoring dishes of large shrimp, French fries (a dish to make North Americans feel comfortable), squid (oh so tasty), steamed rice, spring rolls, mustard greens, whole butterfly fish and finishing with apples for desert. Such incredible tasty delights prepared by your junk’s cook make it hard to stop eating and disappointed to be full.
Dau Go Cave
Once you ascend the 90 stairs to Dau Go Cave’s entrance you might feel a bit disappointed, “This is it?” No, it’s just the entrance. The first chamber is impressive with a true ‘sky-light’ opening allowing the ‘room’ to fill with natural light. Carry on through a narrow passage to the next cavern and then beyond to an opening which leads to the main event. Ta-da! Watch your step as you descend stairs in the darkness punctuated with coloured lights; it may take your eyes a minute or so to adjust. The spacious cavity before you is as big as a football field and as tall as a seven and a half story building. A pathway guides you passed spotlighted stalactites and stalagmites; like statues which have been 20 million years in the making. Farther along is a grotto hosting a well of cool clear water. Allow your artistic mind and imagination to see forms within the petrified columns and be amazed at the artful-beauty of nature.
Buy a Banana
As you begin your sail back to the mainland, small boats selling fresh fruits and vegetables may approach. Buy some bananas, or a pomelo or coconut, and contribute to the local economy on a personal basis. Bananas are a good choice for travellers; as are most fruits which must be peeled to be consumed. If you don’t want them yourself, pass them on to your crew. The creation of this memory will probably cost you 10₵ a banana. Go ahead, splurge; how many times in your life will you get a chance to buy fruit from a moving vessel while leaning over the railing of a junk?
Savor the Sunset
Halong Bay has suffered with pollution for decades. In an attempt to reduce industrial pollution in the now World Heritage-listed seascape, Vietnam banned coal shipping in the bay in 2006, moving the activity 50 kilometers northwest. You may not like the air-pollution (most of the locals don’t either) but this night you are floating in Halong Bay; celebrate its beauty, then show your photos to friends at home, “Look at this one!”