A cruise on Halong Bay is an essential part of any visit to northern Vietnam, claimed our itinerary. Similar statements must be made in every guide to the country, because when we arrived at the embarkation point we felt as if we’d a entered a tourist mill where we’d be sucked in, processed and churned out a day later.
However, we were soon led through the throngs towards the junk-style boat that would be our home for the next 24 hours. After inspecting our cute, wood-paneled cabin, we hastened upstairs to the spacious sundeck, eager to see how the crew would extricate us from the tangle of boats. Miraculously, it happened without a fuss and we were soon floating towards Halong Bay, often described as one of the greatest wonders of Asia.
Soon after casting off we were invited to lunch, which consisted of whole crab, fresh prawns, melt-in-your mouth fish and an unrecognizable but tasty Vietnamese dessert. Oh, and did I mention French wine?
Thus sated, we retired to the deckchairs to watch the panorama of Halong Bay unfold. This Unesco World Heritage site consists of around 3000 precipitous limestone islands jutting out of the emerald-green waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. The name translates loosely as “place of the descending dragon” and legend says that the islands were hewn from the seabed by the thrashing tail of a dragon.
Our junk cruised through narrow channels between towering islands covered in dense vegetation, and navigated slowly past misshapen pillars of rock. The concentration of odd-shaped islands in such a compact area made them seem as if they overlapped, creating a layered effect that stretched into infinity.
Groups of simple houseboats huddled under craggy overhangs, and our junk nudged up alongside one of these floating villages. As well as being the family home, the houseboats are fish farms that provide an income. Large square nets attached to pontoons disappear into the depths, while smaller tanks hold seafood that’s ready for sale.
Our chef purchased a selection of fish and crustaceans, and after we’d watched the sun set over the bay, we settled in for another meal extravaganza, knowing that the seafood couldn’t possibly be any fresher.
Most of the time we didn’t see other tourist boats, but the lights of other boats reflecting on the silken waters imparted a sense of security. There are also a couple of places where tourist boats congregate to disgorge their human cargo for short excursions. The first of these was Sung Sot cave, where we traipsed through a series of limestone caverns lit (rather tastelessly, I thought) by colored bulbs.
The other was Luong Cave, where we clambered in to a rowboat and headed through a low opening at the base of a rocky island. We emerged into a lagoon encircled by sheer cliffs where we drifted in silence, listening to the shriek of seabirds and the wash of waves against the boat. Our timing was fortunate because as we exited the cave an armada of rowboats was heading our way, but despite the occasional feeling of being on a tourist treadmill, the cruise was a superb travel experience.
For a complete contrast to the seascapes of Halong Bay we headed back to the capital, Hanoi, and took an overnight train to the former French summer retreat of Sapa. Sapa and the surrounding mountain areas are known for their ethnic minority groups (known collectively as Montagnards) who follow a simple rural lifestyle raising animals and growing crops. Many women are skilled at embroidery and stitch-work, producing intricate pieces for their own use and for sale.
Once a week the hill tribe people converge to trade livestock, produce and goods – and once again our timing was fortunate. We arrived in time for the Coc Ly market, which only happens on Tuesdays – and although 17km of the drive was over a rough dirt road, it was worth the discomfort.
Coc Ly market is mainly attended by the Flower H’mong people, whose traditional dress features floral patterns embroidered in ultra-bright colors. Flamboyant headgear seemed to be the rage, with some women sporting large, round hats that resembled 70s-style lampshades, while others opted for folded cloth.
The market carried all kinds of everyday goods but, not surprisingly, the most popular stalls were those offering cloth and fluorescent wool. Meanwhile the men hung around stalls selling mounds of fresh tobacco leaves, which were smoked in a big bamboo bong.
From Coc Ly we took a relaxing boat ride down the Chay River then drove to Sapa via Lao Cai, on the Chinese border. After Lao Cai, the road wound tortuously up through a series of switchbacks, zigzagging towards the distant mountains. Heavily terraced hillsides dropped away below us, sculpted into productive land by hundreds of years of human toil.
Sapa town perches on the slopes of a high valley surrounded by mountains, and its French colonial architecture gives it the feeling of a European alpine village. From our hotel room we could see Fansipan, which, at 3143m, is the highest peak in Vietnam. Keen trampers can make the ascent, while another popular option in this region is multi-day treks with overnight stays in hill-tribe villages.
There are several H’mong, Dsao and Tay villages near town, and once we dragged ourselves away from Sapa’s cosy cafes, we wandered down paths through rice paddies to subsistence communities that still live by the rhythm of the seasons.
With the increase in tourism, canny villagers have seen a way to make extra cash and our rural rambles were often interrupted by women and children selling embroidered goods such as purses, tablecloths, and bedspreads. But it was worth the meager cost of a couple of colorful pencil cases to be escorted around the villages and given an insight into local lifestyle and customs.
On our last morning we slogged up a steep path to Dragon Mountain, where attractive public gardens have been created among tall, thin spikes of black rock. From a high point known as Dragon’s Awe we looked over the gardens and the town to Fansipan, which, as usual, was draped in clouds.
We made the most of this peaceful vista, knowing that our next destination was hectic Hanoi, which contrasts well with Sapa and Halong Bay to form an interesting tourism triangle in the north of Vietnam.
NEED TO KNOW
Getting there: Flight Center has return flights to either Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City ex-Auckland from $1569. Flights can be to Hanoi and from Ho Chi Minh City or vice versa, and can be packaged with Adventure World’s range of Vietnam tours.
These include the 10-day Highlights of Vietnam tour, which is priced from $1270 per person, share twin. Conditions apply to fares and tour packages. Adventure World can also customize itineraries for individual travelers.
Collected by Vietnam Travel Blog