Halong Bay on the coast of North Vietnam, is one of those mysterious destinations with great appeal. It’s a dense cluster of nearly 3000 limestone monolithic islands, each topped with thick jungle vegetation rising spectacularly from the ocean.
I would have liked to have visited it at an early era before it became a “go-to” spot on the tourist fast track.
In the landmark movie Indochine, the main characters–fugitives from the law, escape to this area and hide out for months. The scenery in this movie staring Catherine Deneuve is stunning. Pristine. Isolated. Ethereal. A place where you could get lost.
It certainly isn’t a place where one can hide or get lost any more, now that it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Some of the historical references talk about ancient curses…well, if there is any curse, it is too many people. Three million people a year go there.
We visited in January during a gray misty dreamy time, actually a bit spooky. It wasn’t deserted though. In fact, the opposite. In Surprise Cave, we walked elbow to elbow through some sections with at least 100 other tourists. Here’s a photo of a spot, pitched to me as “someplace no one goes.”
The internet is full of horror stories of rampant tourism of what might be called “World Heritigitis”. No controls. The millions of visitors overwhelming Halong Bay. Tourist boat traffic jams, kayak confusion and floating garbage. More people coming to visit than live here.
The photos on many of these sites make it look like the tourist boats were invading fleets. You might think that the area is too attractive for its own good.
But, crowding aside, the area is stunning and I was glad we went at time when most people head to warmer climes. Never mind that I had to wear my long underwear. I loved gliding between the spellbinding cathedrals of rock, some feeling like fairy-tale castles complete with rocky spires.
Halong Bay means Bay of Descending Dragons. Local legend says that long ago when the Vietnamese were fighting Chinese invaders, the gods sent a family of dragons to help defend the land.
This family of dragons descended upon what is now Halong Bay, carving the limestone into individual islands with their tails as they scoured the land.
So, what did we do besides photograph caves, interesting rock formations, hidden lagoons and local boat people?
We kayaked in relative isolation. Layering up in warm clothes (after kayaking in Norway……this was a heat wave) made it all possible and beautiful. My husband and a group of fellows from Norway went for a brief swim.
We also rode in a small sampan to see a fishing village which I found interesting but also a little strange. Hard to not feel like I was gawking at those less fortunate than I.
The tour also included proverbial tourist trap–this time an Floating Museum where we had an opportunity to buy pearls. We did, of course.
Our boat with only five cabins was pleasant, meals delicious, the service great and we enjoyed ourselves. I wish we had had an English speaking guide on board who could have explained what we were seeing but maybe it was ok to simply look and enjoy.
But then there was the music…..
At breakfast and during the cocktail hour every day, the crew played raucous Motown tunes…. totally destroying the mood of this lovely setting.
We repeatedly asked for Vietnamese music and some times we got it but then the next time……back to the default Motown. It was an odd juxtaposition and lack of attention to detail that I came to expect in this part of the world. Part of the charm, I suppose.
Now, of course, we laugh about it.