A trip to North Vietnam would hardly be complete without taking a cruise through the famous UNESCO World Heritage Site – Ha Long Bay. The bay features thousands of limestone karsts and islands in various shapes and sizes, and is truly a sight to behold.
We started our Ha Long Bay day tour early in the morning, when we were picked up by our tour bus at our hotel in Hanoi. It was a comfortable 2.5-hour bus ride from Hanoi to Ha Long, during which we were entertained with a lecture by our friendly tour guide.
From the Tuan Chau Marina Plaza, we were herded by our tour guide and jostled through a thick crowd of tourists to get to our boat – Halong Sen Cruise by Athena Group.
Before boarding, we were repeatedly reminded not to bring any plastic bags or bottles onto the ship. This is one of the strict regulations imposed by the government to reduce water pollution and littering in the precious bay.
Once safely on board, lunch was immediately served. We were presented with generous heaps of local dishes – Vietnamese spring roll, fish cake, grilled beef, steamed prawns, oysters, salad – more than we could eat.
We wolfed down the food as fast as we could, so that we had more time to enjoy the beautiful landscape up on the deck.
By the time we surfaced to the deck, we were completely surrounded by dense clusters of limestone mounds jutting out spectacularly from the ocean.
The name Hạ Long means “descending dragon”. With a name like that, of course there has to be a legend.
According to local legend, the gods sent a family of dragons as protectors to help the country fight against their invaders. The family of dragons began spewing out jewels and jade, which turned into islands and islets dotting the bay, linking together to form a great wall against the invaders. Numerous rock mountains magically appeared in front of the invaders’ ships, resulting in their destruction. After the battle was won, the dragons decided to make their home in this bay and live peacefully ever after.
Our ship sailed slowly through the bay, taking care not to wake the dragons. Because of the popularity of the place, many boats and ships both small and large could be seen plying the channel.
The whole Ha Long Bay area has close to 2000 islands and islets, many of which resemble the shapes of various objects and animals. This has inspired the locals to attach names to the islets, such as the Duck Islet, looking like a lone duck drifting in the sea…
…the Sea Lion (Su Tu Bien) Islet, rising proudly from the water surface…
…the Incense Burner (Dinh Huong) Islet, which the locals also call “Lucky” islet, and whose image is printed on the 200,000 VND note…
…and the Fighting Cock (Trong Mai) Islet, as it looks like a pair of cock (trong) and hen (mai) engaged in a head-to-head battle.
We sailed past many other islets whose names were not made known to us. So we tried our hand at naming some of these islets.
This one we dubbed Fish Islet, as it looked to us like a large fish, which at that moment seemed to be chomping on the unsuspecting ship.
This one looks like Turtle Islet, with its head sticking out of its round hard shell.
Pretty soon, we arrived at Dao Go Island and our ship docked at the Hòn Đỉnh Hương Jetty, where we were promised some exciting boating adventure. We were given the option of either kayaking or taking a bamboo boat ride.
Being rowed in a bamboo boat by one of these friendly boat woman looked like loads of fun, so we bumbled onto a bamboo boat…
…and off we went!
As we bobbed along the tiny bay, our cheerful boat woman made friendly conversation, and even allowed us to try our hand at rowing the boat. As we rowed she would cheer us on, “Yay, number 1!”
We gradually steered toward the entrance of a small cave…
…where everybody – bamboo boats and kayaks – had to wait in line for a chance for a selfie with the cave. After that, it was back to our cruise ship and onward to our next destination.
Heading to the northern end of Dao Go Island, our ship docked us at Thien Cung Cave (also known as Heavenly Palace cave), where we were excited to begin our cave exploration adventure.
Before we explore Thien Cung Cave, let us go back to the legend of the dragon.
Once upon a time, there was a girl called May, who fell in love with the Dragon King. The Dragon King and May held their wedding party right here in this cave, with important guests such as gods, genies, fairies, dragons, and many other animals such as elephants, pythons, and eagles in attendance. Today, visitors are still able to admire the bustling wedding scene – dragons flying in the clouds, baby elephants and lions dancing, huge pythons slithering around old banyan tree, giant eagles outstretching their wings – fossilized in the stalactites of Thien Cung Cave.
Try spotting the baby elephant…
…the dancing lion…
…as well as a loving couple dancing in the shadows.
After emerging from the cave, we were given some free time to wander around the beautiful bay.
We were delighted to spot a huge flock of resident Black Kites (Milvus migrans) circling around the beach, and ended up spending all our time stalking them.
After that, it was back to our boat for a cooking class, where we tried our best to learn the very complicated art of making Vietnamese spring rolls. Everyone had the chance to get their hands dirty. The best part of the class was that we all got to eat whatever we made.
And that very nicely wrapped up our Ha Long Bay cruise.