Steeped in local legend, Ha Long Bay in Vietnam is a wondrous natural sight. With thousands of limestone rock formations jutting out of the sea, natural caves and floating fishing villages, this really is a very special and pretty place.

Ha Long Bay: Enter the dragon

Ha Long Bay is located in Quang Ninh province, near to Hanoi, Vietnam. It is, as the name suggests, a coastal area, which eventually leads into the South China Sea. There are thousands of large rugged limestone rocks jutting out of the sea, as well as many isles and caves within the rocks. The limestone is covered with greenery, with several different plant and tree species growing on these rocks in the water. Some of the islands have small beaches.

Vietnamese legend says that the spectacular rock formations in Ha Long Bay were created when a great dragon carved out valleys and ravines with its mighty tail as it dashed towards the sea. On diving into the water, the chasms were filled with sea-water and only the tops of the rocks remained showing.

A variety of tour operators offer trips from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay, including return transport and one or more nights on a boat in the bay. On some trips people can also opt to stay on Cat Ba Island, one of the larger islands in the bay. Boat trips can also be booked in Ha Long City. Ha Long City can be reached by bus from Hanoi, but it is difficult for independent travellers to arrange nights on a boat without going through a tour. There is also no significant cost saving to trying to make the trip yourself.

We arranged our trip to Ha Long Bay via our guesthouse in Hanoi, the Real Darling Cafe Guest House. We packed a small overnight bag each, leaving the rest of our luggage safe at the guesthouse. We were picked up from our guesthouse after breakfast to make our way by bus to Ha Long Bay.

On arriving at Ha Long Bay, our first visit was to a cave, Thien Cung Grotto. This is accessed from the busy dock. A short walk up some steep steps took us into the cave. We were lead around to see the usual stalagmites and stalactites found in caves, only this cave had been illuminated with many brightly coloured lights, casting eerie shadows around every twist and turn. The lighting attracts split opinions; I thought it was rather pretty, whereas my mum thought it was incredibly tacky. Either way, it was a nice cave to visit.

The guide attempted to point out various animal and human forms created within the rocks. Unfortunately, I found it difficult to see most of these, no matter how hard I squinted, or which way I turned my head. In the end I gave up, and just agreed that I could see them. Maybe everyone else does the same, or maybe people really can make out these rock figures.

We also learnt how this cave is believed to have been the home of the dragon that created Ha Long Bay lived.

We boarded our small boat, which was to be both our sight-seeing vessel for the next two days as well as home for that night. I was delighted to see our little cabin. It was small and compact, but really homely, with beautiful bright red flowery blankets on the two single beds, wooden furnishings and a window which offered a great view.

The scenery before even setting off on the water was simply breath-taking. Literally hundreds of mysterious rocks poking up for as far as the eye could see.

Going further out into the sea amongst the magnificent karsts was just beautiful. I spent a long time on the upper platform of the boat, just gazing all around me at the clear emerald waters and interesting rocks. Being the end of March though, it was cold; a lot colder, in fact, than I had anticipated. Being unsuitably prepared, I found myself wearing a mis-matched selection of most of the two days’ clothing I had taken with me. I was at the point of considering putting my pyjamas on underneath, when dinner was announced and I made my way back inside.

I ate a simple but filling meal of rice and vegetables, then most of the 15 or so guests stayed in the communal area chatting for a while, before heading off for a reasonably early night.
The small boats all anchor in a cluster for the night, and all you can see in the darkness is the lights twinkling on several nearby boats, bobbing in the water.

After a really good sleep, it was an early start. I braved the icy cold shower, although afterwards I kind of wished that I hadn’t, when I stepped outside the cabin and the cold sea air left me almost speechless. A quick dash back inside saw me heading back out with a green hoody over my original outfit. As the morning wore on, I was really grateful for that top!!

After breakfast, we set sail for Cat Ba Island, where some passengers were leaving the boat to spend a night there. After a quick stop there, we continued sailing. The distant formations were quite ethereal in the morning mists. I spent most of the sailing time on the top platform again, just watching the world literally drift by and taking many photos.

We stopped to see some floating fishing villages amongst the rocks. I was particularly entranced by a couple of dogs playing on the large wooden rafts. There was the option here to go kayaking. Most people declined, probably through fear of getting wet in the cold. So, only two people from our boat went kayaking in Ha Long Bay; myself and a young British lad. We opted to go together in the same kayak, and after a few giggles on bashing our oars together, we managed to coordinate ourselves and headed off around a big rocky islet.

Having circled that, we decided to head back towards the boat, continuing beyond where it was waiting into a small cove. Having the wake of a motorboat hit us and nearly sent us flailing into the water, we decided that maybe it was best to head back.

With soggy trainers, I resumed my seat up top whilst we headed back to the dock, where we had lunch and a mooch around a small market area before driving back to Hanoi.

Ha Long Bay can be visited year round, although boats may not make the trip out into the bay in adverse weather conditions. February to April is the cool season, so the weather is cooler with drizzly rain. This can create mists which may affect visibility.

Ha Long Bay is often compared to spots along the Yangtze River in China, and Thailand’s Krabi, due to the many limestone formations and pinnacles. Where else in the world have you visited similar sights of outstanding natural beauty?

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