Halong Bay, North Vietnam, is one of the most dramatic seascapes the planet has to offer. Five hundred million years in the making, twenty million in the shaping, and still evolving before your eyes, it’s a rare chance to see geology in action.
Pillars of limestone, once the supports of vast underground caves, spike surreally out of nowhere. Fissured cliffs slide vertiginously into the jade green sea. Magical vistas of pyramid hills appear fleetingly between rocky gateways, flawless beaches peek through low archways.
Dark, low, caves lead through to marine valleys carved by underground rivers over millions of years, while brand new islets, ominous overhangs and decaying rock bridges indicate the shape of landscapes yet to come.
Seen from the deck of a classic junk? Amazing. By night, with sheet lightning flashing between surrealist outcrops, fengkong karsts shedding pyramidal shadows over smooth, dark water, as you lie on the basketwork roof of a gently-swaying junk watching the storm through the rigging? Words begin to fail.
Twenty million years ago, the Halong Bay region was a coastal, limestone plateau, perhaps not so dissimilar to Mexico’s Yucatan today. Groundwater did its slow and leisurely work, dissolving the rock, shaping funnels, sinkholes, valleys, lakes and caves, reforming snatched calcium into undulating tendrils of speleothems, slender stalactites and dramatic stalagmites, until its slow collapse.
Two million years ago, the sea flooded the region. And this fractured, fissured landscape, rich in green, and buzzing with the constant hubbub of birds, insects, lizards and, yes, monkeys, too, is what remains today.
We — that’s Z, me and his dad — spent the last two days (and a night) experiencing Halong Bay in all its wonder. I had low expectations: the bay has a reputation as a gigantic, floating tourist trap, and El Nido, in Palawan, the Philippines, sets a very high bar for karst land and seascapes. Z’s dad was concerned about cabin fever, inter alia. But Z had been looking forward to his junk trip round the bay since we left southern Vietnam in early March.
In the end, all our expectations were thoroughly surpassed. Not hard in the adults’ case. Rather harder where the nipper was concerned. Here he is, gurning with appreciation, up top of Monkey Island, in a T-shirt his friend Laouena made for his Zacpack sent by his four best friends.
Travelling with children, you discover new and surprising joys all around you. And Halong Bay (in which I’m including the Cat Ba archipelago and Nam Ha Bay for ease) holds phenomenal delights. Who knew that junks were so fantastic for jumping off?!
You slide through on the lapping tidal flow, below a silica smooth ceiling, between ancient stalactites encrusted with millennia of shells, into an eerie, primal darkness, and follow the glimmer of light to the other side. Where the view reveals a flawless, apparently land-locked, lake, more like a lake in the mountains than a vista out at sea. Like this:
Or you scramble up jagged rocks into ancient caves, as yet untouched by sea, where speleothems flourish wildly like a stony thicket growing up around Cinderella’s castle, or the guts of a Giger lifeform. Or sit on board your personal chariot and do your damnedest with gallons of fresh-cooked seafood, and digest as the sky drifts past the rigging. Like this:
The highlight for our spawn? The aptly named Monkey Island, which was sufficiently special to merit a post on his blog. There’s a short, entertaining scramble to the top of a ridge, which gives quite lovely views over the bay:
And, despite (or because of) the tourists that flock there, there’s plenty of the eponymous primates to be seen. Here’s Z and his dad engaging with one on the beach, after a preliminary offering of a banana:
It truly has been a beautiful couple of days, and tomorrow we’re back to Hanoi.
Want to do it yourself? Take the 9.30am train from Long Bien (Hanoi) to Haiphong, and pick up the connecting slow boat to Cat Ba island (ignore anyone who’s told you it’s full or has already left, and buy tickets from the man selling paper tickets on board the boat). Settle in, have some fun, then go see Mr Lo at the post office in Cat Ba town. You can hire the junk, with two large bedrooms plus a roof, for two days and one night, with kayaks included, plus four humongous meals, at a family rate of $180 (US).