I decided to spend the Catholic Christmas on the boat in the bay of Halong. Halong (Hạ Long Bay, to be precise) means “descending dragon”. The dragon descended from its mountainous lair and ambushed the landscape with its mighty tail and that’s where these incredible islands piercing the sea and the sky come from (cf. legend). Islands are indeed a myriad, there are several thousand of them, and this natural spectacle occupies 1000 square kilometres. It is the main tourist attraction of Northern Vietnam and all tourists visit it from Hanoi. I opted for a two day excursion, with a night on the boat.
A company car picked me up from the hotel early in the morning. It took us about 4 hours on a microbus to get to the port of Halong and to board our vessel. It is always a fascinating moment to discover on a tour like that who would be your co-travellers. This time I shared the boat with a German backpacker Lukas and two large French expat families, living in Singapore and UAE. As the Frenchmen travelled together, most of the time I was talking to Lukas. Yet when the time for the Christmas dinner came, we all found ourselves behind a common Christmas table, which naturally progressed into French champagne drinking and some rather crazy dancing on the upper deck of the boat. Quite unexpectedly even I received a Christmas present – a Tiger! What a pleasant surprise.
The port of Halong
The dominant landscape
Lukas relaxing on the top deck of the boat
Lunch is served
Our guide, a veritable iron lady of discipline, despite (or because of?) her youth
One of the many boats plying the same route
In the evening of the first day we also did a kayak ride to the karst caves inside some of the scenic peaks. Entering the cave and then coming out on the other side felt like discovering a lost world, so stark was the contrast between the darkness of the cave with bats flying above your head and a green valley behind suddenly coming into view. After visiting the cave we had some free time on the kayak. It was fascinating to ride the kayak in the eerie silence of the bay as the dusk set in.
Halong before dusk
Next morning (at 7!!!!) it was time to visit the floating villages. The guide explained to me that it was the last year of existence of this particular cluster of villages – the government decided that they were no longer economically sustainable as tourism was way more profitable than fishing and so decided to liquidate the villages and to resettle the fishermen. The fishermen have lived in these villages on the waters of the bay for several hundred years. They are ethnic Vietnamese and their ancestors started this life by fleeing one of the many foreign invasions. This reminded me of the Titikaka lake floating villages, which came to be for the same reason.
A floating village
The locals have a secret way of rowing – using only their legs
I went inside one of the open village houses
A local character
After visiting the villages lazily our boat headed back to the port. The sliding meditation continued!
A kind of a dragon
This is the most famous rock in the bay – in a shape reminiscent of a rooster. The boats gather around it