02Jun2010

Round Halong Bay by Junk

Junk moored on beach of Monkey Island, near Halong Bay, Vietnam

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.

view of islets, halong bay, vietnam

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.
View of cliffs between twin pillars, Halong Bay, Vietnam.

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.
Z on ridge of Monkey Island, with islets in the distance, Halong Bay, Vietnam.

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?!
Z in midflight from the deck of a junk, Halong Bay, Vietnam.

Who would have thought a floating sweetshop would rock up at a floating fishfarm?
Sampan carrying snacks moored by our junk of a fish farm, halong Bay, Vietnam.

And, when it comes to sea kayaking, Halong Bay holds some extraordinary treasures. You kayak into what appears to be simply a dark slit in an otherwise unbroken cliff. Like this:
Kayaking into cave archway in base of cliffs, Halong Bay, Vietnam.

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:
Stalactites dangle from the mouth of a cave, giving onto a marine lake, halong Bay, Vietnam.

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:
View of the rigging of a junk, looking up to the sky, Halong Bay, Vietnam

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:
view over karst islands framed by trees, monkey island, halong bay, vietnam

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:
Interacting with a monkey eating a banana on Monkey Island, Halong Bay, Vietnam.

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).

12 Comments

  1. mish says:

    Words failed me after reading only one paragraph. The best I can manage is brilliant writing – brilliant photos.

    mish x

  2. I took this same trip back in 2001. Funnily enough, one of the things I remember repeatedly from this trip was a woman traveling alone with her two kids (probably around 9 and 11 yrs old). At the time I was totally floored, and thought “wow, maybe you don’t actually have to stop traveling when you have children.”

    I’m sure you inspired some future parent too!

  3. We are going up to Sapa on the 26th then down to Ha long. So glad you just did it so I know where to get the good deal from Mr. Lo! the prices I saw on the net were crazy!! After that we hit Malaysia, singapore and Indonesia….what about you?

    • MummyT says:

      We’re in Sapa now. Dien Bien Phu tomorrow, then into northern Laos to do the tribal-trekking thing, down through Thailand and into Malaysia. When are you in Borneo, again? We are meeting up with my parents in Penang in a month or so, then over to Borneo. Still haven’t thought about music fest….

  4. Totally awesome pictures! I really love the floating sweetshop, I have got to get myself one of these.

  5. [...] a little more time away from the hoards.  We’d love to go back again. Next time we’ll try MummyT’s suggestions for heading to Cat Ba Island and using her tour operator. Sound like the perfect trip with young [...]

  6. Carrie says:

    Wow, those are some very impressive pics. I doubt I’ll ever make it to that part of the planet but thanks for sharing these with everyone! – Carrie

  7. Dominic Sankey says:

    I have just discovered your travelogue after reading an article about you and your son in the Emirates on board magazine, which I found fascinating. Your son is getting the best education that anyone could wish for, he is going to be a very confident, engaging and thought provoking young man.
    I visited Halong Bay in 2010, you have captured it wonderfully, your writing is very evocative.
    Thanks for the musings, I am enjoying them very much, and I’m sure they are proving beneficial to the traveller over the tourist……..

    • Theodora says:

      Hey! That’s good to hear. I didn’t realise that had come out yet… And so glad you like the site. I’m going to get a lovely inspirational nice places to go post up tomorrow, because we’ve been rather focused on the whole Chinese school thing at the moment…

  8. T says:

    This is the post that capture my attention. >____< boy I didn't even know those boats are call junk. Awesome post.

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  1. [...] a little more time away from the hoards.  We’d love to go back again. Next time we’ll try MummyT’s suggestions for heading to Cat Ba Island and using her tour operator. Sound like the perfect trip with young [...]

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