The first time I went to Halong Bay was in 1985 when I was 10. In a most difficult time in Vietnam, during the subsidized system, my father took my younger brother and me on a trip from Hai Phong to Cam Pha to see my uncle. Spending 10 hours on an old steel passenger boat made in Russia, I was so lucky to be on this very interesting route from the historical Bach Dang River, passing by Lan Ha Bay to Halong Bay, and then cruising all the way to Cam Pha along Bai Tu Long Bay. The total, pure beauty of Halong Bay at that time was slowly revealed to the admiring eyes of a 10 year old boy. I still remember so well the amazing “Alice in Wonderland” feeling which overwhelmed me, and I spent most of the time on deck admiring the scenery of Halong Bay. I could never know that 10 years after that, in 1995, Halong Bay would be recognized by UNESCO as the first Natural World Heritage Site of Vietnam. My father was the perfect tour guide on that day. He showed us the beautiful limestone mountains, explained the formation of Halong Bay, pointed out the huge jelly fish swimming alongside the boat which automatically appeared in my imagination as a beautiful fairy tale princess in a beautiful white dress, and showed us the rooster figure on a mountain which suddenly disappeared when the boat moved to the other side of that mountain.
Back then, the small traditional fishing boats sailed by wind power without noisy and polluting engines. It was the first time I had seen boats sailing by wind. It was hard for me to believe my eyes when my father showed them to me. All of these memories remain deep within me, and in my mind, the best images of Halong Bay are still there.
That is Halong Bay, the legendary bay with more than three thousand islands emerging from emerald ocean water. The color of the water is what makes Halong Bay special. It is not blue like most of the sea but a beautiful green color instead. There are 1,969 mountains in Halong Bay that are big enough to have a name, and many of them contain unexpected mysterious grottos inside, some of which have just recently been discovered. I remember my second trip to Halong Bay; a training course of my university for meteorology. It was on Aug 5, when Vietnam and the US normalized relations. In Halong bay, they had just discovered a new cave and named it Surprise Cave. We were among the first guests to have a chance to visit that cave. It was quite different from the well lighted caves with pathways that you visit in Halong Bay today. Together with Thien Cung, Surprise Cave is one of the two best caves for you to visit in Halong Bay.
The most outstanding scenery in Halong Bay is the forest of limestone mountains on the ocean. Cruising on Halong Bay, you can sometimes see these mountains appear in six to eight layers through infinity, and our boat seems to be in a stone forest maze. Most of the captains on the bay don’t use a compass. Instead, they have memorized the possible routes through the bay. Each mountain in the bay could be a beautiful rock bonsai in your garden if you could minimize it, and many of them create beautiful images like Cock Fighting Islet, Incense Burner Islet, Stone Dog, and The Man Head. The name Halong Bay (meaning “Descending Dragon”) comes from local legends which have arisen because of these images. The legend tells of the Dragon from Heaven descending to Halong Bay to help the local people protect their country from invaders. The mountains were created by the holy pearls from the mouth of the dragon and became the natural citadel helping the Vietnamese people hide from and fight against the invaders. After the invaders were defeated, the dragon flew back to heaven, but the mountains will forever remain in Halong Bay.
On the bay, there are many beautiful lagoons hidden from the outside world. They can only be accessed by kayak, following a long cave entrance, when the tide is low. The lagoons are so peaceful, quiet, and secluded. Even the fish will not swim away when they see you in a kayak. Kayaking is one of the best ways to see, discover and feel Halong Bay in the closest and the most detailed way. It is also a great chance for you to be exposed to the beautiful nature of Halong Bay; touching the limestone rock and discovering the charm of Halong which can never be done on a normal cruise.
In contrast to the kayak, I was so lucky to have another chance to see the great panoramic view of Halong Bay from the air in a helicopter. I felt like a giant and really enjoyed viewing Halong Bay from the distance; getting an idea of how many islands belong to the bay, viewing secluded lagoons that can never be found when cruising on the bay, and seeing small beaches on the islands. You can also see the boats as they move through the bay leaving their long trails behind in the water. This could never be seen while cruising on the bay. The helicopter trip also can give you the great experience of viewing the Red River Delta on the way from Hanoi to Halong. You will be amazed with the greenness of the delta and how abundant water exists in the rice fields, ponds, lakes and river in the second largest delta of Vietnam.
Halong Bay also has very interesting vegetation. The biggest tree you can see on the limestone mountains is the Halong Palm which can reach a height of 10m and can be easily viewed from the boat. The most famous plant in Halong Bay is Hai Ve Nu, the unique and beautiful orchid only found in Halong Bay. There are also some animals living on the mountains of Halong Bay such as goats, monkeys, squirrels and many kinds of birds. Halong Bay is also one of the best places for seafood in Vietnam. The bay is so calm and provides the perfect home for many kinds of seafood which you can enjoy during your stay in Halong.
There are no inhabitants on most of the islands in Halong Bay, but there are some very interesting fishing villages located on the bay. The houses are built on top of fish farms used for raising fish and providing docks for fishing boats. Most of the families have lived on these farms for many generations, and you can often see three or four generations of one family in these villages. Since 2003, children in some of the villages have been able to attend school there. There is one school with two classrooms and a volunteer teacher instructing children at the primary level. If they want to do further studies, they need to go ashore.
This is the Halong in my mind. It is one of the most scenic places I have been in my life. The bay has so many things for you to discover, charming and always different in every trip. It is a must see place if you have a chance to come to the North of Vietnam.
By Yang Blue