by Tim Johnson
Often just a short stop on the tourist trail, Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay—a place of beauty and mystery—deserves far more than a day.
Courtesy of Paradise Cruises
It was a slow ride in a covered boat, chugging out past hulking limestone karsts in search of dragons. As we neared Sung Sot Cave, the tip of our tender cutting through the deep aquamarine water, a guide explained the origins of this famous bay. “Literally, Ha Long means ‘descending dragon,’” he said, and then recounted a local legend. When Vietnam was first being formed, he explained, the gods granted this place dragons as defenders. From their mouths came jade and jewels, which became islands, and these islands, in turn, blocked the ships of invaders. Descending and seeking a place to live, the mother dragon chose to stay here. “It’s still her home,” he concluded.
Courtesy of Paradise Cruises
I was sailing Vietnam’s famous Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site whose dazzling natural beauty spreads over 1,500 square kilometers and attracts visitors from around the world. While many settle for a day trip, I was here for more than just a glimpse. On board Paradise Luxury, I would spend three days on these beautiful waters, navigating more than 2,000 of those stunning islands, created so long ago by dragons.
Courtesy of Paradise Luxury
Courtesy of Paradise Cruises
Paradise, a homegrown Vietnamese cruise line, operates a fleet of 41.5-meter wooden ships, styled like junks, providing the most luxurious level of service on the Bay. A recent overhaul has replaced the curtains, carpets, wooden floors and beds in all 17 cabins of their top four ships—installing so-called “dream beds” with eight layers of cushion. The small size of these ships provides both intimacy—guests typically get to know one another on a sailing—and mobility, able to sail into smaller waterways among the karsts.
Sung Sot was stunning. Climbing up a set of winding stairs, we entered the cave through a fissure in a cliff face on Bo Hon Island, the view back on the bay just before entering providing a sweeping view of the surrounding karsts. Many of these steep, small islands are hollow and feature their own caves—their green tops contrasted with the grey of their own cliffs, and the blue of the water below. From there, we turned and descended into a hidden network of dramatically lit chambers and grottos, the stalagmites, stalactites and other formations bathed in blues, reds and purples, as we traversed a series of steps and walkways through this subterranean world.
But while Sung Sot sits on the well-worn tourist trail, a place frequented by day-trippers, my extra time on the bay afforded me the opportunity to go deeper. Ha Long is home to an ancient human culture, dating back tens of thousands of years, and people still live here in a handful of villages, making a life from these waters. At Vung Vieng, a small community completely comprised of floating buildings, I boarded a traditional wooden fishing boat called a sampan. Settling onto a simple wooden seat, a small woman in a conical hat rowed my small group of shipmates through small caves, holes in the limestone that led us into the village, which sits in a protected cove. The water was strangely, serenely quiet, just the sound of the oars slipping in and out of the water and a low hum, our female rower murmuring a low, indiscernible tune.
By Christophe Meneboeuf [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
We climbed onto the village’s dock-like boardwalks, learning of a life constantly on the water, seeing the homes of fishermen as well as their basic implements, gathering places including a school whose single classroom was remarkably similar to its North American counterparts, but for the portrait of Ho Chi Minh hanging at the front—colorful artwork and maps on the walls, desks in rows, facing a blackboard. Fish traps provided dinner, a car battery powered lights and fans, and clay pots caught rainwater. I asked our local guide why the place was so quiet. “They’ve all gone fishing—the deep sea water is only ten or fifteen minutes away,” she responded.
Here, residents have developed a distinctive culture, one borne of isolation, complete with its own songs and festivals. A series of plaques interpreted things further, displaying imperfectly translated English that sometimes bordered on poetry. “Life sprout from the tanning skin of the fishermen or the authentic taste of salty ocean,” one read. “The shining eyes of children reflect the emerald of the water, of mountains, of clouds in Vung Vieng that are enormously appealing to visitors of Halong Bay.”
Courtesy of Vietnam Tourism
During a quiet moment, I took advantage of the extra time on board to chat with Nguyen The Cong Trong, the ship’s charismatic cruise director. Trong always wore a smile, and kept a Canadian flag pinned to the lapel of his suit, a gift from a past guest. He told me that he grew up in Ha Long City, the largest urban center on the bay. “Every day, I would wake up and see these boats—they were already my passion,” he remembered, with a smile. Asking him what makes this area so special, he noted the beauty of the area, which, he added, was accentuated by its peaceful, quiet environment; and this beauty, he observed, extended to the people who live here. “It’s not just the nature. The dragon descended, to stay here. And she descended to protect the Vietnamese people.”
On my last morning on board, we stopped at the tiny, pyramid-shaped Ti Top Island. Walking past the man-made beach, where a number of visitors were wading into the bay’s warm waters, I huffed and puffed up hundreds of stairs, passing a midway viewpoint and heading all the way to the top, where 360-degree views awaited me. Gazing out at the ships below and the islands all around, I thought about those dragons. None were visible. But I certainly saw plenty of gems.
Originally published in Cruise & Travel Lifestyles Fall/Winter 2016 issue.