Halong Bay: between legends and luxury

2013-01-18 08:32
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Halong Bay: Between luxury and legends

Check out these images of Vietnam's magical Halong Bay.

There are places in the world that drift precariously on the verge of the unreal, of fantasy, of faerie, if you will. Like the enchanted island of Avalon in Arthurian legends, they have the ability to cloak themselves in swirling mists, making clear memories and vivid explanations of what it was like to be there practically impossible. At other times the brightness of a recollection - the exact shade of corral the sunset wore, the sound of rain on a tin roof - surfaces so unexpectedly, it shakes you awake in the middle of the night, freezes your fingers on the keyboard mid-report.

Halong Bay on the north-eastern coast of Vietnam is one of these. With its 3000 green sandstone islets popping out of the balmy tropical waters here and there, fully functional floating villages and wide open skies, Vinh Ha Long is pretty much the epitome of a mythical paradise on earth. And if it weren't for the photographs I couldn't stop taking, I might have dismissed my less than 24-hours there as nothing but a sultry dream. 

The Dragon Legend 

Literally translated, the Vietnamese name would read something like ‘descending dragon bay' and when I found out why, the viscosity of its magic suddenly made sense. 

According to local legends, the bay was formed when the gods sent a mother dragon and her offspring to help the Viet people protect their newly established country from foreign invaders. This family of dragons began spitting out jewels and jade, which turned into the islands and islets dotting the bay, linking together to form a great wall that warded the invaders off. Once the battle was won, the dragons didn't return to heaven, but decided to remain in the picturesque place of their earthly victory. The mother dragon made Halong Bay her new home, while her children decided to settle in what we know as Bai Tu Long.

Standing at the prow of one of the bay's famous tourist junk boats, I could almost see the pantomime playing itself out before my eyes: the dragons descending, the jewels dropping from their jaws, growing into mounds of green and, finally, the tired mother sinking into the sea letting out a last fiery sigh of satisfaction.

Five things to do in Halong Bay

Despite our short stay in the bay, which like Table Mountain, is both a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature, its world-between-worlds timelessness allowed us to squeeze in more than felt humanly possible. 

These are my five highlights:

1. Junk Boat Cruise

Doing an overnight junk boat cruise is probably the quintessential way to explore Halong Bay. With autumn leaf-like sails raised to catch the wind, the boat sets out among the islets while guests get to enjoy a delicious seafood lunch in the upper deck dining room. Our cruise was aboard the Bhaya Classic IV where each person got a small, but luxurious cabin complete with double bed, shower, basin, toilet and even a charming tiny balcony. An overnight cruise typically includes all three meals, and we even got to enjoy a Vietnamese cooking demonstration before dinner. Falling asleep with the balcony door slightly ajar, curtains moving gently in the breeze, while listening to the calm lapping of water against the boat's hull is probably one of my favourite memories from the entire Vietnam trip. 

2. Visiting a floating village

Sometime after lunch, once the shore is left well behind and you're only surrounded by other boats and little green hills, the junk boat drops anchor, the lower back deck is opened up and a little shuttle awaits to take eager travellers deeper into the beauty. No matter how tired, jetlagged or lazy you feel, do not miss this opportunity! 

After a short trip (4 - 10 minutes), the shuttle will drop you at a wooden jetty where a whole fleet of canoes, each steered by a pretty local girl wearing a conical hat, await to take you on sightseeing tour of real life in Halong Bay. While there are a number of floating communities that call the bay home, our tour took us into the heart of Vông Viêng fishing village. 

The sight of picture perfect little houses, the type that might be surrounded by a picket fence in a quaint English town, bobbing around on secured rafts caught me completely off guard. As did the glimpse of flat screen televisions mounted against the walls, and pets - yes, dogs and cats - lounging in the sun. Each humble abode also boasted a hammock, which enveloped at least one lazy figure, suggesting we'd hit the village at siesta time. 

3. Swimming in the sea

A visit to Halong Bay is just not complete without a dip in that gorgeous, aquamarine ocean. While you could daintily use the shuttle boat's ladder, I suggest going big and doing a jump for joy instead. Once your toes and fingers start puckering, grab one of the on-board kayaks and explore more on your own. 

4. Early morning Tai Chi class

Waking up at 6am is not my forte, no matter which magnificent part of the world I find myself in. However, with a good deal of cajoling from my fellow travellers, I somehow managed to drag myself up at that unearthly hour to join the onboard tai chi class.

And boy, am I glad I did. 

Still a bit groggy and uncoordinated, a motley collection of passengers gathered on the very top deck of the boat, just as the sun started creeping over the horizon. A crew member who had served us dinner the night before now sported a silky black ensemble with a ferocious crouching tiger embroidered on the back and led us through a routine of slow and steady martial arts moves.

Somewhere between a slow mo kick and a snail pace chop, the boat turned direction and a delicious breeze hit us head on. Unforgettable. 

5. Sung Sot cave

Located on Bo Hòn Island, Sung Sot (‘Surprise') Cave is one of the largest and most spectacular in Halong Bay. But getting to experience it doesn't come easy. First there are the 100 steps you have to climb to get to the first large chamber and then the narrow passage you have to squeeze through to reach the second, even larger chamber. 

One of the most fascinating features in the cave is the fact that the roof takes on the exact look of a wind-swept, sandy beach, giving the cave something of an upside-down feel. Once in the second chamber, keep your eyes peeled for the "pointing finger" rock, which our guide pointed out, looks more like another pointy part of the anatomy. 

The best part, however, is exiting on the other side, where an incredible panoramic view of the entire bay awaits you!

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Nadia travelled as a guest of Flight Centre and On the Go Tours, on the 10-day Very Vietnam tour which departs year-round and starts at R14,540 per person excluding flights.

Price includes: Airport arr/dep transfers, 7 nights 4 star hotels, 1 night deluxe junk boat, 1 overnight sleeper train, breakfast daily, 4 lunches & 1 dinner, all transportation and guided sightseeing with local Vietnamese tour guide. Flight Centre are offering 10% off all tours departing before October 2013 – booked by 31 March 2013.

Qatar Airways serve Vietnam daily from JHB with economy flights starting at R7550 and business flights from R36 250

Contact:   0877 40 50 15 to book this tour now!



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