The islands were sprinkled across the bay like roughly cut diamonds on a jeweller s counter. Dozens lay immediately ahead, each pure and perfect and wild, with exotic foliage clinging to vertical walls that soared skywards from the water. Beyond, many hundreds more: they sat on the hazy horizon like ghost ships. I wondered which was to be mine. The boats engine spluttered and fell silent. Momentum propelled us onto the shore, the fine grains of Thien Canh Son’s beach scratching against the timber underbelly. “What does the name mean?” I asked my guide,
Tony. “It’s Vietnamese for Paradise Island,” he replied. Ah, yes. Paradise Island would do nicely. Aside from a washed-up starfish, two excitable dogs and a yawning caretaker, Thien Canh Son was deserted. It was, for an hour or two at least, my own private island. But I hadn’t stumbled across some secret nirvana, far out at sea. No, just to the west crowded boats were ferrying tourists around one of the world’s most famous natural wonders. Yet here, a few short miles away, there wasn’t a soul to be seen.
New kid in the bay – Halong Bay hogs the limelight. This sweep of north-east Vietnam’s Gulf of Tonkin, scattered with 1,600 craggy limestone karsts, is on many a traveller’s bucket list. Yet just next door, Bai Tu Long Bay offers the same jaw-dropping scenery but sees only a fraction of the visitors. At any given time, more than 500 boats are cruising the waters of Halong Bay, revealing its ethereal beauty to more than 8,000 tourists. According to Tony, Bai Tu Long receives around 1% of that traffic. “Everyone goes to Halong Bay,” he said. “It’s a special place but very busy and commercial now.
When I was a boy, my friends and I would climb the cliffs there. It was only us and the fishermen. Then, suddenly, people started coming.” The wider world cottoned on in 1994 when Halong (and parts of Bai Tu Long) was named a UNESCO World Heritage site. Today it’s one of Asia’s most popular – and spectacular – sites, with miles of beaches and traditional fishing communities. However, much of its early charm has been eroded.
I sailed around Halong Bay some years ago, instantly captivated by its beauty. Sadly, though, that wasn’t my only memory. I recall docking at an island, my boat jostling for space at the lopsided pier, and joining a long line that shuffled into a cave where a despondent guide pointed out phallic rocks with a fading laser. That evening I’d stood on deck watching the sun set the sea and sky ablaze when a small dinghy interrupted the scene and its skipper – the Vietnamese Del Boy – proceeded to tout his entire inventory. It was like watching the shopping channel live at sea. He remained until I begrudgingly handed over some dong. I wasn’t buying biscuits but a precious few minutes without the hard sell. Only then did he leave me to my sunset. This time promised to be different.