experience - Halong Bay, Vietnam
Written by Connla Stokes
The crowning glory of Vietnam’s tourism sector is undoubtedly Halong Bay – home to a divine dreamscape defined by thousands of uninhabited karst islets, all of which can be navigated in a revamped traditional junk.
Covering 1,500 sq. km, and decorated by nearly 2,000 karst islets, Halong Bay is an awe-inspiring geomorphic spectacle, and Vietnam’s most popular tourist destination outside Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Lying in the Gulf of Tonkin, this transcendent archipelago is four hours by road from the capital, though high-fliers pressed for time can whoosh straight to the bay in a helicopter, while old-fashioned types can board an east-bound train for Haiphong.
Regardless of how you get there, first-time visitors will be bowled over by the heavenly seascape, which, according to Vietnamese folklore, was formed by a family of dragons, summoned by the gods to assist a beleaguered Viet army in fending off an invasion from the north. The dragons duly descended upon the bay, spitting out giant shards of jewellery and jade, which transformed into a labyrinth of islands, islets and stacks, enabling the Viet forces to pick off the enemy’s vessels one by one.
The quintessential Halong experience is an overnight cruise on a double-decker junk, sipping cocktails as the sun goes down, devouring a seafood feast under a canopy of stars, and watching the sun rise up through the misty morning. Often described as a geological museum, visitors can explore inside some of the monolithic islands, where caves are filled with glistening stalactites and stalagmites (and some 19th-century French graffiti). You can also kayak into concealed lagoons, or seek out an unpopulated cove and bask in the sunshine.
The glut of cost-cutting tourism operators running generic (and in some cases, slapdash) tours means that as a visitor you should choose your junk wisely – select an ethical and responsible tour operator, one that is not only interested in sustainable tourism, but will take you off the beaten path, such as Emeraude Classic Cruises or Bhaya Cruises. You will have a more exclusive experience and ensure Halong Bay’s precious beauty is better protected in the long run.
There tends to be little variety when it comes to Halong cruises – most operators offer kayaking and midnight fishing trips as optional add-ons – so for more dynamic, interactive excursions around the bay, contact Asian Outdoors (formerly Slo Pony Adventures). The company’s forte is rock climbing, but trekking and exploratory kayaking can also be added to a personalised itinerary. The company has mapped out every nook and cranny around this grand, craggy bay, so if you simply wish to 'island hop' and soak up the sun, the guides also know the best (hidden) spots.