Sunday, May 4, 2008

Halong Bay

We left Hanoi and headed east to Halong Bay for an overnight boat trip to take in this spectacular region, which has aptly been designated a Unesco World Heritage site. The drive was tiring, but it gave us the opportunity to take in the surrounding region. The rice paddies were full of farmers carefully planting individual shoots rice in what appeared to be an amazingly labor intensive process to grow this nation’s staple food source. We also passed thousands of people on motorbikes and we were constantly amazed at the cargo, be it complete families, oversized parcels or baskets full of livestock.

When we arrived to Halong City, we were pleasantly surprised by the comfort of our boat. After waiting a bit to depart, we headed out into the Gulf of Tonkin to navigate through a maze of thousands of limestone pinnacles. Legend has it that the area was created by the thumping tail of a dragon who descended from the nearby mountains and the number of secret caves and hidden grottos in the region certainly make it seem like a perfect habitat for a mythical creature.

Our first stop was one of those caves, seductively named the Surprise Cave. It was a lovely deep cave full of unspoiled stalactites and stalagmites, some of which resembled dragons, turtles and other “surprising” objects – we’ll let your imagination run wild from the picture…

Outside of the caves, floating vendors rowed from one boat to the next selling their wares to tourists. These women not only make their living on the sea, but also make their homes there, with small floating cabins and fish farms sprinkled throughout the bay.

From this aquatic village, we jumped into kayaks to explore the islands up close. At one point, we passed through a natural tunnel covered with mussels and other tiny sea creatures into an enclosed grotto lush with tropical vegetation. It really is a magical place and we were lucky that the weather cooperated and provided a warm and sunny winter day for us to experience it.

In the evening, the boat anchored and we enjoyed a few drinks on the upper deck watching the sunset and then later gazing at the stars. It was not as peaceful as we might have imagined because there were many boats docked one small area of this large national park, but it was still a worthwhile experience.

The next morning we woke and traveled through other regions of the park, mesmerized by the many different shapes and sizes of the islands. It was a very relaxing trip, with little to do other than admire the natural beauty.

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