The local lore of Ha Long Bay is dominated with tails of dragons and jade. Legend has it that the Jade Emperor commanded his dragons to defend the Bay from Chinese invaders. Spitting chunks of jade at its enemies, the dragons defended the Bay. Ha Long Bay takes its name from these ‘descending dragons.’ It’s quintessential limestone islands, formed by the dragon’s spit, aka chunks of jade.
When in Vietnam, you go to Ha Long Bay. It is a tourist mecca both for foreigners and Vietnamese alike for a reason. We booked our tour, packed our bags, and bought travel provisions (aka chips). But first a four hour drive from Hanoi to Ha Long most of which consisted of getting out of Hanoi’s traffic chaos. The ride was uneventful which I appreciate. I have been on enough harrowing bus rides for a lifetime, so the straight forward ride is not to be taken for granted.
Our arrival to the port was ahead of schedule, so we took a detour to a pearl farm. I am sure if we were running on schedule, the same stop would have been made as this is clearly curated to tourists. Touristy, but still fascinating. We visited a pearl farm in Fakarava (French Polynesia) so I felt slightly in the know about the process. There are three different types of mollusks used in pearl production and each produces a slightly different coloring. The black Tahitian pearls being the rarest. At the end of the tour, you must zigzag your way through the aisles of jewelry, pearl novelties and all things made out of the leftover shells before you can reach the exit. It reminded me of Ikea. No way out except through.
A short drive later, with the iconic Ha Long Bay haystack islands appearing in the distance, we arrived in Ha Long city. It was bizarre. Countless buildings under construction. I mean rows and rows of semi-finished buildings: an empty city of ornate concrete. Our guide told us that 10 million people visit the bay each year. 10 Million! Give it 2 years and the insanity will be tripled once these buildings are completed. Yet, during all this construction they didn’t widen the road. So during this ‘lite’ tourist time, we were trapped for 20 minutes in traffic chaos. Zero rhyme or reason to direction. Cars were parked in the middle of the street with no drivers in sight. Eventually our van simply followed suit and stopped in the middle of the road to let us out. We were quickly shuffled to the sidewalk and escorted along the port. Yet another scene of chaos, this time though some semblance of organization began to unfold. Did I mention it was hot. Muggy and hot with relentless sun rays beating down. What did I expect? The heat in Vietnam is on another level to hell.
Our boat arrived and we loaded in. The huge diesel engine on the boat was so loud you could feel it in your chest. The boat itself was hefty but simple. As we headed deeper into the bay, the sky started to turn and the clouds rolled in. The rain was coming. Our bags, which previously lined the front of the ferry, were quickly thrown inside the boat and placed on the floor. Close call but the bags were dry. It was a good plan until we hit the wave of a passing barge at just the wrong angle. We all heaved forward as the boat bounced up and landed with a thud on the wave. It was surprising. Water poured over the front of the boat and down the aisle. The floor boards were immediately covered in two+ inches of water. It reminded me of a chemistry class in college where the professor instructed us to remove all items from the classroom floor. He then proceeded to pour liquid nitrogen down the aisles so we could see matter change from liquid to gas. The liquid hit the floor, traveled down the aisle and evaporated almost as quickly. That time I was fascinated by chemistry. This time I was fascinated by human behavior. With water on the floor that meant our bags were now wet. Some people lunged for their bags, hoisted them onto their laps and then sat back down a tad despondent. Inspections of their wet bags dominating the next couple minutes. While others others simply raised their feet, barely bothered at all. The whole ordeal lasted less than a minute, but proved to be entertaining.
As our boat weaved our way deeper into the bay the islands of Ha Long Bay came closer into view. It is like they just dropped from the sky. The limestone islands of Ha Long Bay are called karsts. Natural erosion has whittled down these limestone islands into the magnificent structures you see today. 1,000’s of islands dot the bay. To be exact, the Vietnamese government claims 1,969 islands in total. A curious coincidence given this is also the year (1969)of Ho Chi Minh’s death. The islands rise out of the bay, sheer cliffs covered in thick foliage. They are beautiful. Sadly, with 10 million visitors each year, the water is littered with trash which surprised me. Broken styrofoam, plastic bags and bottles, and general garbage. I tried not to dwell on the trash and moved my attention to the large boats coming into view.
Our loud ferry pulled up to Unicharm, our home for the next 24hours. Instead of pulling alongside the boat, the ferry softly rammed into the side of the boat. An interesting docking choice but it worked. Unicharm fits roughly 40 people in 20 rooms, so big, but not too big. The traditional wooden boats that appear in a lot of promotional material are no longer used as they were deemed unsafe by the government.
The poor guy that was supposed to greet us with fresh hand towels apparently took a tumble in the hall moments before our arrival, so instead of fresh towels for the guests, they were picking them up off the floor. We were escorted to the dining room where the days schedule was laid out before us; check-in to our rooms, lunch, relax, kayak, happy hour and then dinner. Our guide ran down the roster assigning us rooms. Not sure where it started, but folks began to clap after each name. It was odd. More odd that they sat back down after they received their room assignment instead of going to their rooms. Todd and I laughed with our table mates at the hilarity of it all. I think I was going to like them. Our name was called and we exited with our room key, no need to linger. I didn’t know what to expect, but the room definitely exceeded expectations especially in overall size. We briefly settled in and then headed back upstairs for an inaugural beer and some lunch.
As lunch ensued the boat started its journey into the bay. As we dined, limestone islands passed by the windows. Each one awed me more than the last. I was surprised by the lack of birds. Frankly, Vietnam lacked birds altogether which was odd, but I wasn’t sad about it either. I was surprised and delighted all in one to see that lunch was dominated by Vietnamese cuisine. I was also surprised by how good it was. After dining, we changed into our suits and settled in for the rest of the ride. We drank beer and watched as the sun danced off the water and along the islands. I took so many photos as each island was more and more beautiful.
At one point, the loud din of an engine grew closer and closer. It sounded like a struggling lawn mower. I looked overboard and there was an old lady driving alongside our ship. Eagerly waiving at anyone onboard that caught her eye. Her boat was filled with provisions and snacks; chips, cookies, soap, toilet paper, and who knows what else. She was eagerly prepared with a net to hoist whatever items we requested up to the second floor balcony where we sat. She was persistent but unfortunately we didn’t want anything. As I looked around, she was not alone. There were a number of snack/provision boats approaching the various ships. It must be a distinctly lucrative business for the locals.
Later that day we headed out for a kayak tour. I was excited to move my body and get a closer look at these islands. In Ha Long Bay, there are floating houses and the kayak station was one such house. We had seen the floating houses as our boat moved through the bay. They were bizarre and ingenious all in one. Each house had formed its own island with bridges and buildings. These houses looked like nothing more than little shacks floating on the water. Our guide later pointed out the solar panels perched upon their roofs. Most had two buildings. I can only assume one was the ‘main’ house and the other either the bathroom or the kitchen. Most had plants and tarps, sometimes a dog running around.
The floating kayak station was also a fish farm. Hard to describe. Floating planks connected different fish tanks. And these tanks had some monster fish, like 1m/ 3ft long. They grow the fish in the tanks and then sell them. It was bizarre to see that many of the floating houses had dogs and cats. Dogs scampered along the planks or lounged in the sun. I wondered if they brought the dogs to the shore during low tide so they could run.
We all hoped into our respective kayaks. Some folks clearly had a handle of how to kayak while others tried really hard. One pair in our group propelled their kayak with sheer enthusiasm. They paddled hard in every wrong direction. I was a bit concerned for the woman in the front of the kayak as the stern man continuously swung his paddle precariously close to her head with each pull. Again, good people watching.
As we paddled through the bay one can’t help but be in awe of it all. I was mesmerized by its charm. And as one that loves rocks, I had so many scientific questions about the origin of this place not merely the legend of its creation. We kayaked to a little beach at the sight of what was once a hotel. To be frank, it was gross. So much trash. But it was hot and the need to cool down won over. So we quickly waded out into the water, past the zone of floating debris and into what felt a tad cleaner. Although a shower later would be a definite must. We stayed in the water for quit some time chatting with our new boat friends and enjoying the moment. It did feel good to move the body. As the sun was setting, our crew made its way back to the floating kayak station. The golden hour in Ha Long Bay did not disappoint.
The food on the boat was very good. We enjoyed the nights dinner with our new Québécois friends, JP and Anne. Dinner consisted of grilled fish, chicken, pork, and clams. A carnivores delight. Have I mentioned that the pork in Vietnam is amazing. The fat melts down and you get rich pieces of pork with slight char that makes for the most satisfying of bites each time.
The stars shown so bright that night in the bay. We sat on the top deck and talked. With travel it can sometimes feel like you are always moving, a pressure to see it all, do it all and capitalize on every moment. It can be exhausting so having the moment to sit and embrace the surroundings and connect with Todd was very welcome.
The next morning we were supposed to bike to a local village. As we prepared for our bike ride, the sky opened up and began to rain. Todd and I made a winning decision to wear our swim suits and Chacos instead of athletic gear and tennis shoes. I did wear a pair of shorts with my suit top, but Todd went shirtless. We used the dry bag provided by the boat and headed out. The guides passed out lovely green ponchos. They proved helpful in the beginning but quickly lost the battle against the heavy rain leaving everyone soaking wet after all. The mass of green ponchos peddling along the road was a pretty funny site to see.
The rain came down in buckets as we peddled our one speed bikes through the hills to the village. My chain quickly broke so I traded bikes with the guide. Let’s just say we were not the same height and the bike was much too small for my frame. The village was originally inhabited by those living in floating homes. It is the only flat area around that allows for such habitation. At the village, we dangled our toes off the edge of a stair as little fish nibbled the dead skin off our feet. It was too much for me. It tickled and I couldn’t stop moving my feet but it didn’t seem to bother Todd. Post fish pedicure, we biked through the village, past the neglected rice patties and lonely cow, and back up the hills to our ferry. Our time in Ha Long was winding down. Back to the boat for lunch and then a ferry back to the port.
Overall, one night and two half days in Ha Long Bay was the perfect amount of time to take it all in. I could have gone without the 4hour drive to and from Hanoi, but that was much preferred to staying in Ha Long City which left a lot to be desired.
I came to term with visiting ‘touristy’ places awhile ago. You have to. They are famous for a reason. And Ha Long Bay is no exception. You don’t miss Ha Long Bay when you are in Vietnam. Not to mention it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is mother nature at her finest. But I have mixed emotions about the place. It was a bit sad to see all the trash. A place of such magnitude should be preserved and revered and respected. I know some of the trash comes in with the tide, but how much is casually tossed overboard. I wanted a net to collect it all. Maybe there are efforts to clean it up but I don’t know. Trash and all, I would 100% recommend a visit. It’s just too unique to pass up.