Geology and mythology combine effortlessly to make Ha Long Bay a must-see destination. Ha Long is a majestic landscape just off the coast of north-eastern Vietnam.
Ha Long literally means ‘descending dragon’. Legend has it that, in order to protect the country in its infancy, The Jade Emperor unleashed a ‘mother dragon’ to disperse an advancing naval fleet. In its wake the dragon left behind an impenetrable barrier of emeralds that, over time, set and formed the 1,967 islands and inlets now designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Present-day Ha Long Bay is the result of a long process of geological evolution, producing a precious geological museum that has been naturally preserved in the open air for the last 300 million years. The Karst limestone islands are a favourite for many tourists, so to avoid the crowds it is better to head off from Tuan Chau Island. That’s exactly what I did, with a company called Paradise Cruise, which specializes in luxury travel and has a team of friendly and informative staff that will make your trip an absolute pleasure.
Setting sail from the harbour after breakfast, we stopped at Sung Sot Cave to be taken on a guided tour through the massive enclave. The scale of the cave, eroded by the calm turquoise water over millennia, was breathtaking. Its beauty and stature makes you feel like you have stepped into another time and place.
A delicious buffet lunch, offering a wide selection of local and national delicacies, greeted us on our return. The liner has an excellent selection of spa treatments available. And with some time to kill before our next stop I opted for a warm, relaxing Jacuzzi.
Ti Top Island was next on the agenda. By no means is it an easy ascent. But the 360 degree panoramic view of the surrounding landscape was well worth the effort. Recently recognized as one of the seven wonders of the natural world, Ha Long Bay covers more than 1,500 square kilometres, so there is no better place to experience its splendour.
Back onboard, there are a number of activities to occupy your evening. There is kayaking, a cooking class and a very much appreciated local wine tasting session.
Later, on the sundeck, the head chef prepares a makeshift kitchen and invites the passengers to try their hand at some traditional Vietnamese cooking. I am now the proud owner of a Fresh Spring Roll making certificate. After devouring what I had prepared, which looked rather more like something ravaged and dropped onto my plate by a passing seagull, we knocked back several rice wines to the chant of “Mot, Hai, Ba…. Dzo!”, or one two three… cheers. I partook of one or two more beers as the sun set on the horizon, then headed downstairs to the warm dark wood of the restaurant for dinner. Served up was a delicious five-course meal that topped off a perfect day aboard the Paradise ship.
Knowing that we were up early for Tai Chi at sunrise, I made my way to my cabin and fell fast and sound asleep. Now, I am not the most energetic person in the morning, so Tai Chi was a battle. Possibly I was not the only newcomer to this, but I certainly made it my own. As everyone relaxed and stretched in one smooth gliding motion, I struggled and strained, popping limbs somewhat reminiscent of a Beyoncé music video.
After coffee and pastries we set off toward Luon Cave lagoon. Escorted on a charming little bamboo boat through the cave, we emerged in a lagoon surrounded on all sides by the stunning limestone pillars, covered in thick jungle vegetation. Only accessed at this one point, the enclosure provided perfect peace and tranquillity. Met in all directions with a deafening silence, while watching eagles circle overhead and spotting the island’s monkeys perched on the sharp cliff’s edge, was more my idea of a morning routine.
Again, we headed back to the boat for a final wander through the bay, allowing time for a final glimpse of this unique place.
We said our thanks to the wonderful staff onboard the Paradise Cruise who made our trip nothing short of amazing. And so, it was back to the hustle and bustle of Hanoi, wishing I had booked a longer stay.