Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Ha Long Bay

"You'll know when you've done them, and you'll never forget. Followed by a romantic evening on board the boat."

I admit that I thought twice, at this point, about the wisdom of commiting myself to two 'romantic' days with Harvey amidst the splendour of Ha Long Bay, another of the eighth wonders of the natural world. (Just how many are there tied for eighth? I think I've visited at least three already...) But my brief hesitation melted away in the face of the innocent charms of the salesgirl, and we paid our money for the trip to "Ha Long Bay - two days, one night".

One early morning, a 3h bus ride and a brief tourist stop at a craft centre later we were at Ha Long City. A city in the throes of a redevelopment that will apparently create a forest of concrete-based hotels for the visiting masses. We saw the unfinished hotel shells along the new causeway. Perhaps the need for aggregate for the hotels is why they're quarrying a large proportion of the hills we passed on the way to Ha Long - hills just like those that everyone travels so far to see in the bay itself...

Bypassing the city itself we were whisked to the docks and onto our motorised junk-a-like. Ha Long bay is, indeed, beautiful. 3000 irregularly shaped limestone islands jutting from the milky blue waters of the sea, surrounding you, fading away into the distance, each potentially housing a temple, an underground cavern or a beach.

If the cloud cover was a little less that 100%, the weather slightly more sunny than 100% grey or the temperature a little higher than very chilly it would be truly stunning. Even in these conditions it was great. Imagine kayaking under a limestone arch into a silent lagoon, surrounded on all sides by forested cliffs. Not a sound to be heard but your own occasional paddling, which you try so hard to do quietly to avoid breaking the beautiful, solitary silence. Momentary bliss.

Kayaking back was a little more fraught... weaving between junks that seemed determined to mow us down. Still, it was a piece of cake compared to crossing the roads in Hanoi. On our return to the boat swimming seemed like the thing to do. I'm still not quite sure how I managed to swim around the two junks - 30m breast stroke, 30m back stroke and 50m doggy paddle I believe. I really should learn how to swim properly some day, although knowing that Harvey wouldn't be much help if I went under and that everyone else on the boat was too scared that the water was cold was a great motivator.

We spent a very cold night on the boat (in separate beds, despite Harvey originally opening the door to a double-bedded cabin and getting his hopes up before realising he had the wrong door and, incidentally, that all the keys worked in all the locks). Despite dreaming of sunshine, the following morning was similarly overcast but we had some early morning exertions on an island beach anyway before sailing on through the Bay and returning to Hanoi.

In short, then, Ha Long Bay is beautiful, but I'd recommend visiting when it's warmer and brighter. If you find yourself in northern Vietnam at this time of year (January to March) consider following an alternative recommendation we heard (but did not have time to try ourselves) - head to Sa Pa and go trekking amongst the paddy fields and minority villages instead of visiting Ha Long.


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