Three days and two nights floating on Halong Bay can bring you the unforgettable moment in your life. Duc Hanh explores.
Halong Bay cruises, Vietnam
I come to Halong at noon; the sun is high in the sky and burning bright. At the pier countless wooden junks, sailboats, speedboats and tiny bamboo boats bob around. After a four hour stint in the van from Hanoi, everybody is understandably itching to kick back and feel the sea breeze on board.
Just then a speed-boat arrives with a flourish and we pile on board before zooming off to the Indochina Sail, a large, handsome junk that the captain proudly announces is 44 meters long and 8.5 meters wide – and indeed it seems a fine, seaworthy vessel to me.
In my time I’ve been on board a few of the bay’s shabbier junks. It is one point worth making: when it comes to visiting Halong Bay don’t go for the budget trips! Thankfully there’s more than a few classy junks to choose from there days.
On board the Indochina Sail, we have a restaurant, the Indochina Sail Bar, a gift shop and even a library. Guests can also avail of binoculars, snorkeling equipment or top-of-the-line Canadian made kayaks. As we set off into the bay, I tentatively start with the binoculars.
Most of my fellow travelers are content to flop around the deck, sipping drinks, surveying the impressive view or catching a bit of sun. A trip to Halong is first and foremost about relaxing! Sun-shy, I stretch out on a lie-low on the more shaded lower deck and listen to the buffeting breeze and the sound of the boat chopping through the waves. Time passes and I happily doze off in the salty air.
A call for lunch stirs me out of my light slumber. A five-course lunch is devoured by the hungry guests. We hadn’t even worked up an appetite.
Afterwards, we drop anchor at Ti Top Island. The tiny island had the honor of receiving a visit from cosmonaut Ghermann Titop, a hero of the former Soviet Union, accompanied by President Ho Chi Minh. To mark the significance of their visit, Uncle Ho named it Ti Top Island. A bit small though it might be, it wins kudos for its quiet and airy atmosphere, its clean white sand and clear waters, as well as its alluring landscape. The beach is ideal for swimming nearly year round. Besides the island’s real attraction is the pagoda-styled lookout point its peak. After climbing the 427 stone steps winding up the mountain one is treated to a most incredible 360 degree view of Halong Bay.
Heading back to my cabin to shower and change for dinner, I discover a card reads: “Wine Tasting is waiting for you now.” We clamber up the deck for a special feast with Chile, South African and American wine all round. The sun drops behind the surrounding islands as we sit in the dwindling twilight.
Slightly tipsy, I step down the restaurant for dinner in the sweet melodies of traditional Vietnamese Dan Bau (Monochord music instrument). At night the bay is magical. A canopy of glittering stars above us, a refreshing coolness in the air, and flashes of fluorescent lamps of cuttlefish boat in the far distance – it is pure bliss just to sit around with the other travelers, your friends or partner. Conversation is optional. More adventurous is to sit on the tender in the darkness to visit fishermen fishing for cuttlefish. The first day elapses quickly but smoothly.
The voices of vendors who have rowed up to our junk to sell snacks, seafood, souvenirs and cigarettes make me wake up. “Today is a hard but very interesting day for us. We is coming to Ngoc Vung Island and kayaking around Cong Do fishing-village,” the crew informs us of our itinerary for the second day.
After disembarking the Indochina Sails Junk onto a smaller wooden boat, we sail towards the shore of Ngoc Vung Island along with my fellow travelers and a bunch of mountain bikes. We are off for a cycling tip across this mysterious island which sits amongst the awe inspiring Halong archipelago.
Ngoc Vung (Mother Pearl) island is 50km from Halong City’s Wharf. Once all around the island you could plunge below and find a plethora of pearls, hence the name Mother Pearl island. During the war against the US, the island served as the protector of the eastern waterways. Offshore a wealth of artifacts was discovered in 1937. A string of excavations and archaeological research followed. There were relics from Cong Yen wharf dating back to the ninth century as well as from the ancient citadels of Mac and Nguyen dynasties in the 18th century.
We arrive on the shore of the island and our tour guide jumps into action.
“Okay, we will cycle across the island to the east side where we can find the most deserted beaches,” he explains.
From the wharf, we cycle along a coastal road that skirts the island’s hilly terrain. The road is spectacular. There is never a chance to get bored with stunning views of land and sea.
Off the shoreline fishermen are caulking their bamboo boat with tar or scrapping worms off the panels of their wooden boats. Along the road several women are mending fishing nets or drying peanuts. Up the hilly slopes, children blithely tend to oxen or geese. On the verdant paddy fields farmers pull up weeds or busy themselves with fresh water ponds of fish and shrimp.
You can find big fish in these little ponds. Man, one aqua-farmer we meet along the way, says, “Last week, my uncle caught a butterfish weighing over 10 kg.”
For those worried about cycling on country roads on remote islands, Ngoc Vung boasts fairly smooth infrastructure all round. There is very little traffic. Just the odd three-wheeled vehicle or motorbike passes by. Life on the island is simple. If you’re after tranquility, you will find it in spades.
“Everybody here knows each other very well,” says Mien, who transports goods around the island in his three-wheeled vehicle. “Whenever someone is sick everyone on the island comes to wish them a speedy recovery. Whenever a family has bad luck, everyone is ready to help them. I have never locked the door to my house. Here we are one big family.”
The road from the wharf to beach is rather short, just 5km, so even if you’re not a keen cyclist you should find it easy enough. There is no need to rush, no need to stress out. We stop frequently and bask in the island’s natural beauty. Away from the sea, you can find luxuriant fields of rice and pine trees.
When we finally arrive at the white sandy beach, it sparkles and glistens under the sunshine. There is not a soul bathing on the beach. For tourists looking for a remote hidden getaway spot this fits the bill.
The island is 12square kilometers in area with over 1,000 inhabitants living mainly off fishing, farming, aquaculture and afforesting. But there are no bars or restaurants, no showers or toilets. But that’s why we’re here: To escape the crowds and bask in our own little private paradise.
After swimming, sun-bathing and walking along the beach, with heavy hearts we cycle back towards the boat. But just when we think the fun is over our tour guide introduces us to the kayaks.
Sailing way from Ngoc Vung Island, we clamber into the kayaks and paddle off to Cong Do, a floating fishing village in Bai Tu Long bay, 25km southeast of Halong wharf.
You can find shrimp, crab, fish, squid and aquatic plants. We paddle around soaking up the atmosphere and dreaming of a seafood dinner that we will have back in Indochina Sails again tonight. Our second day passes with adventurous and passionate activities and we think of the last day with more unforgettable moments.