Day 5 and 6 of our continuing trip in Vietnam brought my wife and I to Hạ Long Bay. This was a part of the trip I had been particularly looking forward to, not only for the pure pleasure of seeing the famous islands, but because I knew they would help inspire me for a world I’m building for my upcoming Zoone book series.
About Hạ Long Bay
Hạ Long Bay is a world heritage site containing 1,969 islands (our guide informed us that we could easily remember the number because 1969 was the year that Ho Chi Minh died). The islands are limestone cliffs topped with tropical forests, and they jut out of the water in numerous shapes.
The name Hạ Long means “Descending Dragon.” According to legend, in the early days of Vietnam, the people were invaded by an army from the north, via the sea. The people prayed for a miracle and a mother dragon, along with her children, descended to repel the attacking ships. The dragons gushed fire, but also jewels and jade, which became the islands that now sprinkle the emerald waters and form a natural barrier to protect Vietnam.
As the story goes, after defeating the invaders, the dragons fell in love with the realm and decided to settle in the bay. Where the mother dragon settled is now called Hạ Long, and where the children settled is Bái Tử Long Bay.
Getting to Hạ Long Bay
You can find places to book tours to Hạ Long Bay (and many other sites in northern Vietnam) on almost every street corner in Hanoi. Prices and quality vary. Most hotels will also offer to book tours as well, which is the avenue we took. Our friend Shaughnessy, who was staying at a different hotel, decided to book the same tour as us throughout hotel. So, the next morning, he got up with the first honking scooters to trek across town and meet us at our hotel, where the tour bus was coming to fetch us.
It is about a four-hour ride to Hạ Long Bay. The first part is spent navigating the busy streets of Hanoi, and then it’s out to the countryside. However, the same principles of driving in the city apply to the country—our bus driver would eagerly slip in and out of lanes of traffic (one of those lanes being the shoulder of the road) and would often pass vehicles without the slightest concern for the oncoming trucks speeding directly towards us! Having been to enough countries where this is the norm, I didn’t find this part too concerning, but others on the bus were gripping their seats a little tightly!
Our guide was named Viet An, but recommended we just call him “Andy” as foreigners usually bungled the pronunciation of his name. Along the way, he told us a few stories about Hanoi and gave us some advice about crossing the street. According to Andy, the smallest is always right on the streets of Hanoi; scooter beats car, and pedestrian beats scooter. The pedestrian is always right and scooters and cars will do everything to avoid hitting them. Not exactly our experience in Hanoi!
Speaking of scooters, we saw a lot of them on the arteries leading in and out of Hanoi, and many of them seated entire families. I noticed a bit of a system in terms of how the family is ordered:
- If only a mother and child, the child goes in the front.
- If mother and two children, the order is mother, smallest child, oldest child.
- If entire family, the order is smallest child, father, next child, mother.
I saw a few variations on the above, but this seemed to be the main approach. What was even more fascinating was the number of riders who were sitting behind the driver of the scooter, completely asleep. The way the scooters swerve in and out of traffic . . . I thought for sure someone would fall enough. But, of course, they didn’t. What seems completely mind-boggling to the Western mind is just a way of life here.
Our journey to Hạ Long Bay included the obligatory half-hour stop at a giant tourist mall. We didn’t really care much to buy anything (well, except Marcie), but it was good to stretch our legs after being on the cramped bus for an hour and a half.
Eventually, we arrived at our destination. Despite it being low season, there were countless buses unloading at the piers, and swarms of tourists clamouring to get on their boats.
Marcie, Shaughnessy, and I instantly regretted not packing warmer clothing. The wind was up, there was a chill in the air, and rain was threatening. Thankfully, in Vietnam, there is a store pretty much everywhere for tourists, so we bought some fleeces at the pier (mine only cost $20).
Setting out into Hạ Long Bay
I find the problem with any tour is the busy itinerary. We were loaded onto our boat, assigned rooms, and fed lunch, and by that time our vessel was speeding towards our first stop on the tour. There was not a lot of time to rest, relax, and dwell on the gorgeous landscape!
Our boat had three decks and sufficient space for all the passengers. Our cabins included a large bed and our own private bathroom.
Of course, we didn’t intend to spend much time in our cabins anyway; as soon as we could, we set out onto the decks to gaze at the stunning rock formations.
I had always wanted to come to Hạ Long Bay, partially because I had seen its beautiful landscape in advertisements and film. The James Bond films, The Man with the Golden Gun and Tomorrow Never Dies were partially filmed here, as were the more recent movies Pan and King Kong: Skull Island.
So, between myths and movies, I feel there is a certain element of adventure invested in the island-cliffs of Hạ Long Bay. Shaughnessy and I kept an eye out for giant gorillas, but before long, the boat came to a stop: a place to go kayaking near a pearl farm harboured in a ring of islands. We were only given 40 minutes to kayak, so Marcie and I quickly hopped in our vessel and began fervently paddling to see as much as we could.
We made it far enough to see one of the famous islands with the head of an eagle (you can see it in the photo below, in between the two other island clusters).
The shacks you see on the left side of the photo are part of the pearl farm. A visit to the pearl farm is included in a three-day, two-night tour of Hạ Long Bay, but we had opted for a one-night tour, so did not get to visit the farm directly.
Then, back to our boat, and we were whisked off to Ti Top Island. The island got its name from Ghermann Titov, a Russian hero in the second World War. The beach has a crescent-shaped beach and series of steps that you can climb to the top.
We had just enough time to either go swimming or climbing, and we opted for climbing. Most of the other tourists made the same decision. There were scores of them ascending the mountain—at least to begin with. The way is steep, with over 400 steps, and not everyone could make it.
But, if you can make it, the view is spectacular.
We snapped many photos, but the sun soon started to set and I had noticed that there were no lights on the steep stairs coming up, so I urged Shaughnessy and Marcie to start heading down before it was pitch-dark. The stairs twist and turn, and there are railings, but the last thing we wanted was to go tumbling down and break something on an island too far from civilization.
At the bottom, we waited to be picked up by our taxi boat and watched visitors far braver than us go for a swim.
Then our taxi arrived, and we all piled on. It was at this point that I remembered that we had been brought over in two separate boat loads, but now, we loaded everyone onto the same taxi. The boat was really struggling to leave the island and some of the passengers at the back even hopped out to push us. Then the pilot frantically began moving us about to balance the boat.
Well, it was only a ten-minute ride, and we ultimately made it without incident. We watched Ti Top island disappear into the mist then arrived back at our main boat.
Fishing for squid
The night was free time, so while many people chatted or watched a movie on the main deck (unsurprisingly, they were showing King Kong: Skull Island), I decided to wander out and try my hand at squid fishing with our guide, Andy.
It was only he and I, and I quite enjoyed hanging with him and plying him with questions about Vietnam life.
We directed a giant light from the boat into the water to try and trick the squid to rising to the surface and snap at our lures. We had no such luck that night, but I did find out a lot about Vietnamese cuisine by picking Andy’s brain about the various things I had seen being sold on the streets of Hanoi. He explained to me recipes for preparing eels and these types of river worms that I had seen an old lady selling. Apparently the worms are fried up with onions and spices and made into a sort of patty.
He also told me there were many islands in Hạ Long Bay inhabited by monkeys. He said sometimes you could hear them shriek—but, though I kept my eyes and ears open, I found no hint of them during our tour, just like that elusive King Kong.
The boat children
The next morning, Marcie got up at 6 am to go do tae chi with Andy on the upper deck of the ship.
I wasn’t quite that earnest, so I wandered out to the bow of the ship and watched the islands in the mist. It was while I was lingering here, amidst the mist, that I heard a plaintive voice call out, “Something to buy? Something to buy?”
I peered over the edge of the ship and noticed a girl right below me, piloting a flat-bed boat full of snacks and drinks. It was a floating corner store! She was moving from cruiser to cruiser, offering her wares. It was a little to early for me to entertain a warm soda pop, so I thanked her and she set off to find custom at the next ship.
Afterwards, Andy explained to Marcie that this girl was one of the boat children. They live with their families on their junks. Traditionally, they make a living by fishing, but now they are clearly trying to adapt to the tourist industry. Andy said many of the children live their whole lives on the boats and receive no formal education, never learning to read or write. The government is now trying to instil regulations to make sure the children go to school. I found the situation fascinating and my mind began percolating with ideas for a story . . .
Hang Sửng Sốt Cave
After a hasty breakfast, we set out on another mini-tour, this time of Hang Sửng Sốt cave, a UNESCO world heritage site. Hang Sửng Sốt, which means “surprising” or “amazing”, is a giant network of caverns on Bo Hon Island. It was originally discovered by the French during their colonial rule, but then forgotten about and rediscovered in recent years by a Vietnamese fisherman trying to find haven from a storm.
Nowadays, it’s a busy tourist site! Andy got us there ahead of the morning rush, but even so, the place was still teeming with people.
The caves are huge, and photos don’t really do them any justice, but if you examine the two photos below, you will spot people in amidst the stalactites, and that might give you a sense of scale.
A path has been constructed through the caverns and everything is safe and well-lit, affording clear views of the alien-like rock formations. The guides eagerly point out the many shapes to be seen—this one looks like the mother dragon, this one looks like King Kong, and so forth.
The caves were unexpected inspiration for me. I had not really researched them beforehand, but I found them overwhelming in scope and scale and was instantly put into world-building mode. I kept kicking myself for having left my sketchbook on the boat. I consoled myself by snapping as many pictures as I could and then making a promise to myself to sketch as soon as I got back to my book.
It takes a good hour or so to go through the caves. There are many outcroppings that allow visitors to view the water. And, of course, on those outcroppings there are also souvenir stores! At the largest outcropping, you can see a pair of giant stone “feet” dangling off the edge. Perhaps some troll got caught daydreaming here at sunrise.
Here is a view of the bay from the outcropping, showing the pier where the water taxis dock after ferrying tourists from the larger ships.
Some time to brainstorm
After leaving the caves and returning to our main boat, I snatched up my sketchbook, flew to the top deck of the ship and began jotting down my thoughts and inspirations. I had the entire deck to myself and, to be honest, this was my favourite part of the entire tour. The boat was on the move, the islands were sailing solemnly past, and I had time to just be.
Well, that was it for our tour. The boat headed back to dock and it was back on the bus towards Hanoi. It was our last full day in this country.
I have loved my time in Vietnam. The people are inventive, hard-working, and earnest, carving existences for themselves in what would be impossible circumstances for most of us hailing from a western sentiment.
Farewell to Vietnam . . . and, now, on to Cambodia!