There be dragons – Halong Bay

The legend goes that the islands of Halong Bay were formed by a dragons who spit out jade and jewels into the sea to help the Vietnamese build a barrier to defend against would be invaders. After attempts to conquer the area was thwarted, the dragons fell in love with the bay and took eternal residence there. One look at these giant, limestone karsts, and I couldn’t help but be overtaken with the sense that we were sailing among the sleeping beasts.

It didn’t hurt, either, that along the journey I was reading the Song of Fire and Ice series by George R.R. Martin, in which dragons play a major role. It was actually pretty fun to have the entire trip be embellished by Martin’s novels – his tales are rich with colors, banners, and sigils that were represented everywhere in Vietnam. I sort of half lived in Vietnam, and half lived in his books.

Traveling three hours east of Hanoi, we arrived in Halong City and boarded a traditional Vietnamese junk for a three day, two night tour of Halong Bay. Words can’t described how ethereal the bay is – emerald waters… giant, jungle topped islands… ancient boats… it was a different world.

I have this great series of photos of Grace as we first walked up to the top deck of the junk where she is just awestruck (and happy!) I know I had the same look(s) on my face.

The boat was beautiful. We took our meals in a large dining room which we shared with eight other couples (Australians and New Zealanders), and we spent most of our time on the top deck, just lounging about, reading, and taking in the sites.

And we had an amazing room, with huge windows to take in the sights of the sea and rock formations. It was great to wake to the sun rising up out of the Pacific Ocean.

Off the boat, we got to explore the bay and travel to island caves by kayak. Our main boat pulled into a small sheltered “lagoon” between the karsts that served as protection for some floating homes, that had kayaks available for us. It was my first time on a sea kayak, and after about 5 minutes of wondering if maybe Grace and I had found an activity that we weren‘t compatible at, we found our rhythm and quickly skirted around the islands. It’s a brutal activity, though, and I slept well that night with a soar upper body.

One of the caves we had the opportunity to explore was Kim Quy Cave – or “Golden Turtle” Cave – which, according to the myth is where a great Golden Turtle died of exhaustion after returning a holy sword to King Lê Thái Tổ to stop the Ming invaders from China (there was a lot of “stopping China” on our trip through Vietnam… a lot of stopping many imperialist invaders…)

We got to see the Golden Turtle – and touch him, which brings luck to all who lay his hands upon him (yay!) And then we headed back to our junk for an evening swim.

Swimming in the Pacific, on the other side of the world, proved absolutely magical. Splashing around in Halong Bay, I couldn’t get it out of my head that I was SWIMMING ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD! And that I was SWIMMING WITH DRAGONS! Words really can’t explain how out-of-this-world it was. And the salinity of the water was so strong that you couldn’t sink if you tried (and I tried… so much so that I got a double ear infection – but prepared travelers that we were, the antibiotics we brought cleared them right up).

The second day had us heading off to a different section of the bay for more exploration in kayaks. Halong Bay is huge, and we would just as easily run across a small fishing boat as we would a globe trotting cargo ship. Halong Bay, which sits in the South China Sea, is a major shipping lane, and has historically been in much dispute as to who holds the rights to pass through (primarily China vs. Vietnam… which is apparently a never-ending theme). Being in the middle of it made the current tensions that are arising that much more real. Still, it was easier to turn off the current events and just enjoy being in this different world.

We toured secluded lagoons that were straight out of a “best-of” tourism book. One can really see why Halong Bay was recently voted one of the “new seven wonders of nature.” I am so grateful that we got to experience it first hand.

And as if that wasn’t enough, we spent the rest of the day on a secluded island, complete with a view of the bay, and a white sandy beach to lounge upon. (Grace and I wondered aloud if the beach was natural or if the sand had been brought in, but I didn’t find a for sure answer. I later read that the government, in an attempt to lure greater tourist numbers, brought in tons of sand to create these beautiful beaches. They succeeded, but there has also been an immense ecological loss to the area.)

Then we still had the sunset to enjoy back on the boat.

Our final day on the bay was spent visiting a floating village. Four villages dot the area, totaling about 1600 residents that sustain themselves on fishing, and now with a boon from the tourism industry (the government subsidizes the villages, and our floating village tour guides were employees of the national park system).

Though we were less than a week into our trip, I had an inkling at the time that Halong Bay was to be my favorite part of Vietnam. Reflecting upon, and writing about, the entire experience now, Halong Bay really was my favorite part of the trip. Though I have yet to tell you, dear reader, all of our amazing adventures, Halong really set my spirit right. It turned out to be a really deep connection to something that was beyond imagination that I, personally, needed.

There are still many more stories to tell, so stay tuned, but Halong Bay is truly a wonder of the natural world.


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