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Thursday, March 14, 2013

Sailing Halong Bay


In my hometown of Vancouver, we take topography for granted; we’re spoiled by scenery. Moving to Bangkok, your perspective changes; scenery morphs into concrete. Traveling out of Bangkok reminds you how much you miss a “nice view”. Traveling to Ha Long Bay reminds you that you have no idea what a “nice view” really is.

Vietnam is blessed with scenery that is staggering. Yes, Hanoi is tangled with traffic, incessant honking, sealed beneath a constant haze and a muggy sweat. But that disappears as you travel north across the Red River towards Ha Long. Hills begin to roll; jungles engulf you until the reveal of limestone karsts in Vietnam’s most prized UNESCO heritage site.

Ha Long translates roughly to “descending dragon”. Locals used the term to describe what they thought they saw floating off shore, out in the bay. There, hundreds of towering islands rise from the South China Sea. Partially hidden in the mist they resemble the humps of a sea monster floating in the bay.

We booked our trip throughIndochina Sails, opting for the deluxe cabin. I was skeptical, keeping hopes low to combat disappointment that was sure to follow taking a cruise. I have to admit we would have never considered ourselves “cruise people”.

Before moving to Southeast Asia I assumed “Chinese Junk” was just the leftover containers from last night’s Kung Pao, not the beautiful wooden boats restored to navigate through emerald green waters of Ha Long Bay. Gorgeous, rich, dark teak with gold accents surrounded us as we walked into our deluxe room. Small? Not at all. Our room was large with a plush comfortable queen bed (unusual for Southeast Asia) and included a stunning marble en-suite. Our bags were waiting for us on our bed, which we promptly ignored and climbed up on the top deck as we cruised into the midst towards the mouth of the dragon.

Sails down, the ship chugged silently through the haze towards limestone dragon tails. There were 14 other cabins on our boat and 25 fellow travelers – the perfect amount to feel alone and part of a group at all times. The Vietnamese staff were friendly and hardworking aboard a Chinese made ship piloted by a captain from, of course, New York. He left his job in the city to travel through Southeast Asia, landing in Vietnam, never leaving. Floating in the bay, we understood why.

Lunch was served shortly after departing. A mix of American and Vietnamese to choose from, served a la carte. A glass of wine with good food, was a perfect way to cruise towards our first stop; Luon Cave (aka the bat cave). The ship dropped anchor as we dropped into kayaks and paddled towards the cave.

Gliding silently in individual kayaks through the cave without being accosted by any bats, we could hear them up in the dark. Through the cave we continued following our guide next to the jungle walls. He brought us to another cave and warned those who didn’t do well with tight spaces (aka me) should consider waiting.

I looked to my wife for a way out, of which she gave none and we continued into the darkness. At one point in the cave, I had to lean as far back in the kayak as I could to navigate the dark. I fought the urge to panic as I my nose scraped the dark rock above me and continued towards the light.

We emerged from the cave into a lagoon of glowing green water surrounded by walls of silent verdant jungle, save for the occasional monkey or bird call. We sat there and took it in for as long as we could. The guide noted the tide was rising and that tight cave we just came through was getting tighter. You didn’t have to tell me twice.

Back on the ship we sailed to our next stop; Titop Island. The island is a favorite amongst Chinese and Vietnamese tourists. Its small sand beach was packed with families splashing in the water. We passed on the beach and climbed the stairs to the top of the island to get a clear view of where exactly we were and received new appreciation for just how beautiful the area was. Hundreds of limestone atolls standing in stoic silence as those beautiful wooden boats drifted in and out of view.

We re-boarded and sailed towards our anchoring spot for the night. There was wine tasting and barbecue on the top deck for those that wanted and a huge buffet in the galley for those who didn’t. We sat on the deck sipping wine and taking in all of the scenery before we headed to our cabin. Eventually we fell asleep looking out the window at the water that glowed a neon green beneath our boat, lit by the floodlights of our ship.

If you don’t know, coffee in Vietnam is ridiculous (a remnant of its Colonial French history). But coffee on the deck of a gorgeous boat floating in Ha Long Bay first thing in the morning is existential. We could’ve done Tai Chi, we could’ve hiked to a nearby cave, we could’ve bartered with locals of the nearby floating village, in the end we chose to sit and sip coffee, relax and read a book in the morning steam of the bay.

All too soon, we were making the 2-hour cruise back to port while we ate breakfast. We wished we had done the 2-night cruise instead of the one, we wish we could say the kayaking was the best part, we wish we could remember the names of everyone we met, but our minds are lost in that morning sipping coffee surrounded by dragon tails without a care in the world, amongst some of the most amazing topography on earth.

By Scott Holmes
Source: From the Deck Chair

Supported by Indochina Sails - The most luxury and safest cruises in Halong Bay
INDOCHINA SAILS
Hanoi Office
Add: 27 – A6 – Dam Trau Quarter – Hai Ba Trung District – Hanoi – Vietnam
Tel: +84 – 4- 39842362
Fax: +84 – 4 – 39844150

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