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Beautiful but busy bay of islands


Good Morning Vietnam! After the 17-hour bus ride from Phonsavan into Vietnam on Saturday 24 July (arrived at hotel at 11pm), we spent Sunday the 25th in the uneventful town of Ninh Binh, simply resting up, vegging out and doing some necessary shopping (including buying a new sandals for $5 each - we'd forgotten our smelly, muddy pairs in a plastic bag on the bus!). A few folk in our group went out to an area called Tam Coc, in the surrounding countryside, where limestone karsts similar to those at Yangshuo in China may be seen. However, we chose to spend the very rainy day just consolidating. 

Early on Monday morning we were back on the bus for the four-hour drive to Halong Bay to the north. As the rainy, cloudy weather continued, we feared we might end up not seeing much at all of this legendary bay of islands. However, by the time we had boarded our attractive wooden junk-style boat, the rain had lifted. Ours was one of probably 200 or more tourist boats at the quay - we set off at about noon, joining the huge flock of boats swarming in the direction of the islands in the distance. What a sight! I'd known this place was popular, but wasn't quite expecting this kind of mass tourism! 

Shortly after departing, we were served an excellent seafood lunch including fresh prawns and squid, a real treat. The rest of the afternoon was spent sprawled on the upper deck (aka the roof), watching the magnificent scenery of jutting limestone islets go by. It's very similar to Pang Nga in southern Thailand, which we had visited during our sailing course, except that the upright little islands are smaller and more densely packed - so the overall effect is more dramatic. Thankfully, as we advanced deeper into the bay and among the islands, we soon lost the hoards of other boats! The sun broke through the clouds, and we gazed out over shimmering emerald island clusters and small floating fishing villages. 

After a couple of serene hours, a rude return to the tourist masses awaited us as we moored outside Dau Go Cave with several other boats. The limestone chambers are lit to rather dramatic effect, and boast some interesting formations and a lovely rippled roof. Our guide had promised a surprise, and in the third chamber we spotted it... a penis-shaped rock complete with balls, all lit up in red! Needless to say, not a natural formation. The crowds and the extreme humidity made it a little hard to appreciate the beauty of the caves, so we were glad to leave the bustle and return to the boat. 

A short chug brought us to our overnight anchorage in a neighbouring bay - here we found ourselves in the company of 20 or so other boats, as this is the only overnight anchorage permitted. So again, no real respite from the masses. However, a few of us hopped into kayaks and spent the last hour or two of daylight exploring nearby islets and coves, gazing up at the cliffs decorated in lush green foliage and the occasional colour of a flowering shrub. We spotted a troop of playful monkeys tumbling and chasing each other high up a cliff, and watched sea eagles soar above. So peaceful! Despite the influx of the tourist masses, this bay and its uninhabited, protected islands still harbour a wonderful array of wildlife...

... and not so wonderful wildlife...After kayaking, we had a swim, and I got stung by a jellyfish on both legs! Needless to say I got plenty of sympathy and first aid advice - thanks to Gillian's Wasp-Eze, the stinging was gone in no time. 

Our evening meal was another fantastic spread of fresh seafood dishes, which we washed down with quite a few bottles of wine - ed Bordeaux and a Vietnamese Dalat white wine (not bad!). Up on the top deck, we enjoyed our last few glasses of wine, looking at the stars and chatting. Rich and I decided to sleep in the main dining deck rather than our cabin to escape the noise of the engine - located right beneath our floorboards, it was kept running all night. So we took our sheets and joined the crew on the cane sofas upstairs. Slept well, except for the mouse/rat I felt crossing my pillow! 

By 6.30am, just after sunrise, we were all up on the top deck as our boat started the cruise back. The weather was glorious and the early morning light over the islands just spectacular. Our captain took a direct return route, and by 8am we were jostling for mooring space on the quay. And so, back on the bus for the journey to Hanoi. 

Though I am pleased we visited Halong Bay, and found the scenery really awe-inspiring, I must say that the scale of tourism detracted from the experience somewhat. And though I am not sure exactly what the environmental costs are, there are bound to be some... time will tell.



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