Possibly the most iconic and most picturesque sight in Vietnam, in person Halong Bay doesn’t disappoint. The 1,500 km2 bay, dotted with some 2,000 oddly shaped limestone rocks, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and legend has it, was created by a dragon’s tail when the creature dove into the Gulf of Tonkin.
Having been wowed by the sight of Halong Bay when I watched the Top Gear special in Vietnam years ago, the bay was at the top of my must-see list and there was no way I was going to Vietnam without seeing it.
On arriving at the port, we hopped onto a rickety old wooden boat, which took us out into the bay and to our mother ship where we’d be spending the night. From the outside the ship didn’t look like much, but inside it was elegant.
I was staying in a cabin on the lower deck – it was small with dark wooden panelling and floors, two single beds with crisp, white sheets and a bedside table. The en-suite bathroom was lovely and I was surprised by how great the shower was, it had excellent water pressure and a steady warm temperature.
After dropping off our bags, we headed to the dining room on the middle floor for lunch. There we were treated to a lavish and delicious banquet of prawns, squid, spring rolls, fishcakes, chicken curry with rice, cucumber and tomato salad with garlic and rice vinegar, and a plate of fruit for dessert.
Tummies full, we hopped back in the small wooden boat to explore a nearby cave in one of the beautiful limestone rocks. We had to climb some steep steps to get to the cave and from the outside (as with most caves), it didn’t look like much but as I walked inside I realised it was huge and much more extensive than I’d anticipated.
We followed the trail through the cave, admiring the various rock formations – our guide kept pointing out various shapes in the rock that were meant to represent different animals. The cave was incredibly humid and it was so hot, I was soon dripping with sweat. I’m used to European caves, which tend to be quite chilly, so the sweat-inducing cavern was a bit of a shock to the system.
On leaving the cave, I walked back to the harbour where I was fascinated by a group of enterprising women sitting in their boats along the dock preparing and selling fish, fruits and other food stuffs for the passing tourists. The Halong Bay equivalent of a tourist café.
Once I got back to the boat, I grabbed my book and headed up to the top deck to sit in the shaded area at the front of the boat. It was so peaceful, reading my book and taking in the splendid views before me. Despite there being lots of other tourist boats around (Halong Bay is very touristy and there were tons of other boats in the bay), it was really quiet and all I could hear was the sound of the sea and the boat’s engine.
That night, we enjoyed another sumptuous feast aboard the boat with dish upon dish appearing before us – each one was fantastic. There were grilled prawns, a baked oyster in a delicious Vietnamese sauce, papaya and carrot salad, squid cakes, pork curry with rice, ginger-boiled cabbage, baked white river fish cooked in a spicy tomato sauce and platters of fruit for dessert.
The following morning, I again retreated to the top deck with my book to marvel at the sight before me. The jutting limestone rocks in all their shapes and sizes are breathtaking, photos don’t do justice to how pretty and serene it is. I could’ve stayed on the boat for days just gazing out across the water. I’d really been looking forward to Halong Bay, and, despite being more touristy than I’d have liked, I was so pleased it lived up to my, admittedly, rather high expectations.