Halong Bay: Explore The New Wonder Of The World

Here be dragons – The three-hour drive from Hanoi to Halong City took us from the capital’s choked streets and through rural scenes of farmers and water buffalos, waterlogged paddy fields and tiny cemeteries. An endless stream of stalls selling steaming pho (noodle soup) flashed by. Cars, trucks and motorbikes laden with pigs played games of ga (chicken), speeding towards oncoming traffic before abruptly swerving to safety with a long blast of the horn. As the cranes and car showrooms of Halong City materialised, so too did the first of many limestone karsts, rising like bulbous tree-cloaked humps from the water. The diesel-scented harbour was chaotic, a mix of lavish yachts, cargo containers and wooden fishing boats.

Somewhere among them was my home for the next two nights: a teak Chinese-style junk boat modelled on those that once traded silk, cotton and ceramics here in centuries gone by. Setting sail aboard the Princess, it was hard not to feel just a little smug as we journeyed in the opposite direction to almost every other vessel. At the helm was our laidback and laconic skipper, Nguyen Hoang Hiep, who guided us through the labyrinthine waterways using his feet to steer the boat. The three-hour voyage was slow and leisurely, mostly spent identifying shapes in the rugged isles: the hunched silhouette of a gorilla, the statues of Easter Island, the profile of Abraham Lincoln.

Row upon row of islands consumed the entire scene, merging into one mangled land mass and creating distant optical illusions. Experts believe the spectacle is a result of more than 500 million years of geological changes, but the Vietnamese have another theory. According to legend, Halong Bay was created by a dragon sent to earth to protect the country from early sea invaders. The beast landed and sprayed pearls from its mouth that later formed these rugged towers. Bai Tu Long (‘Bay of Baby Dragons’) is where the kids hung out.


Boats wait for tourists visiting the Vung Vieng floating village.

But, why, I wondered did so few people venture here despite the many obvious pleasures? “Halong is closer to the harbour, and the islands there are taller and less spread out. Plus the government has spent millions developing the infrastructure to cater for mass tourism,” explained Tony. “Bai Tu Long is what Halong was like before. It reminds me of my childhood, those early days spent climbing and swimming.” We moored for the night at Cong Do, a spot ringed by cliffs more than 100m high. Like skyscrapers designed by Mother Nature, they were riddled with deep gashes, smeared markings and other beautiful imperfections. Dusk was in a hurry, upon us and gone in the blink of an eye. As the stars set in, the only illumination came from three other boats that cast rippling columns of light across the bay.

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