Have you ever wished you could live in a postcard? You can if you cruise the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Halong Bay. Situated on Vietnam’s north east coast, it has been an important player in the nation’s history and economy for over a millennium. It doesn’t hurt being one of the most beautiful sites on the planet.
Hundreds of limestone island mountains have been sculpted by centuries of erosion. The bay itself opens to the Gulf of Tonkin, the port of Ha Phong and the vast Pacific. It has been an artery of wealth for Hanoi and north Vietnam, as well as the cultured pearl capital of the country. The bay, like so many expanses of water in Southeast Asia, contains floating villages. Unlike floating villages on lakes, Halong Bay’s are not as polluted or dangerous for residents, although the average family wage is less than US$800/year – owning your own floating house can run 20X that amount.
The main occupation is cultured pearl farming and it’s an extraordinary art. A thin slice of the oyster’s skin is dissected under microscopic glasses and transformed into “seeds” that are surgically inserted into the live oyster. Several seeds may be implanted in one oyster, but, after 3 to 7 years gestation – depending on the type and color – less than 20% will ever produce gem quality pearls. Packed in baskets suspended from bamboo floats, this important crop waits for the luxury world beyond.
Prior to the Indochina wars that ravaged Vietnam during the 20th century, Halong Bay’s limestone islands provided shelter for villages and isolated Confucian and Buddhist retreats. During the war they served as protection from air raids and today they are fascinating caves for everyone to explore. Several caves have been transformed into “tourist-friendly” sites complete with guides and dramatic multi-color theater lighting illuminating an otherworldly scene that takes on the look of an “otherworldly tourist attraction” – shapes of hanging feet, a large erection.. etc. (I keep on saying – the truth – that Southeast Asians are playful and NOT dour.) It’s fun to walk through the caves.
Halong Bay’s a year round destination but summer is its high season. March was still chilly and damp but added a mystical mist to the entire scene. There are islands that have summer beaches and there are a variety of ways to visit the bay. The most popular is by taking an overnight cruise on a small Chinese Junk-style ship carrying between 10 – 35 passengers. From the port of Halong City, the ships sail into the center of the bay – about one hour – and anchor. From there passengers are ferried to the floating villages, pearl farms, caves, kayaking through caves and to beaches. There are over 400 ships that ply the bay ranging from small day-trip boats to “luxury” cruise junks. I place the word “luxury” in quotes because it’s difficult to determine beforehand which ships fit that description. Our ship, the Hanoi Opera, booked through the highly recommended Explorer Tours, was a fine ship carrying 20+ passengers but whose beds were designed for ascetic monks – the futon mattress was perhaps 1.5 inches thick to be generous. Paying $US420/couple for 2 nights to sleep on a wooden pallet was very uncomfortable. We discovered that there were many other ships that offered a higher level of comfort at less cost. Having researched the options for a month before booking the cruise, and after extensive conversations with fellow travelers, I would not recommend booking ahead. With so many ships available for tours, the best options are: (1) stay overnight in Halong City and take a day excursion on the bay, or (2) stay overnight in Halong City and check out the overnight ships to see which ones offer real beds. A one-night cruise is sufficient and should run around US$150 – $165/couple, including meals.
The three hour bus trip from Hanoi to the Bay – included in the cruise fare – was equally interesting. Although not comfortable given the condition of Vietnamese roads, passing through rural countryside and old villages undergoing rapid middle-class changes was enlightening. Rice paddies with Water Buffalo pulling wooden plows are next to French/Vietnamese style “McMansions” of affluent Vietnamese. Anyone owning a house more than 9 feet wide is affluent since ancient real estate tax laws dictate high levies on any structure wider – although depth and height are excluded. Catholic churches towered over Confucian and Buddhist temples. Trash, dust and too much traffic for the narrow roads was typical. Nineteenth century farming and building techniques were side-by-side with 21st century office buildings, truck dealers and technical schools.
Of course, the bus does make a shopping stop at a stone carving studio. Vietnam has an abundance of both limestone and marble. Hand-made marble carvings, especially garden fountains and statues, in sizes that are quite large, are available and shipping can be arranged – don’t look for bargains, these are top-of-the-line. Silk embroidery – some of it quite fine – is an art that frequently employs the disabled and is widely available, as well as jewelry and women’s ready-to-wear clothing – as long as you’re a size 8 or less.