Karst Mountains and Caves, Bái Tử Long Bay North Vietnam
Boat on the Bay
A Dragon’s Pearl junk rests at anchor with the batten sails up on Bai Tu Long Bay, North Vietnam.
One of the nicest things about going to sleep on the water is waking up on it.
I love waking up on a boat, well away from ‘civilisation’ in the middle of ‘nowhere’ – provided there is coffee!
It was the morning of our second day on a beautifully fitted-out oak- and teak-finished Chinese-style junk, anchored on the waters of Bái Tử Long Bay, just northeast of Hạ Long Bay in North Vietnam. The staff were already up, so fragrant Vietnamese coffee was ready for me as I made my way – wrapped in a wooden blanket against the winter chill – up to the top deck to watch the sea eagles soar over our heads. The boat swung gently on its rode, so that we had a slowly changing view of the karst mountains rising up around us.
Join me for a magical day on these UNESCO-listed waters.
Quiet Waters off Cap La Island
We weren’t the only tourists anchored in the bay, but the other boats were far enough away that their presence didn’t disrupt the morning peace. Apparently, there is a new government regulation that all boats cruising the Halong Bay area must be white; gone are the brown and red junks of the past.
It’s times like this I wish I had one of those massive wild-life lenses… Even with a lot of cropping, my 70-200mm is no match for the magnificent sea eagles flying loops high over our heads in the hazy morning sky.
Dragon Pearl 1
Can you imagine a more perfect place for breakfast? All of the meals included in our package were superb: fresh and beautifully presented.
Kayaks at the Ready
Our time on the boat is well ‘managed’; not long after breakfast, our boat has cruised from Cong Do to Cong Dam. Our tender has gone to a local village and returned with red kayaks that contrast with the dark green waters .
We climb into the kayaks and set out on the waters …
Lead Kayak (iPhone6)
… following our guide past towering karst cliffs…
Kayaks in the Caves (iPhone6)
… and into one of the many pitch-black caves in the limestone.
Limestone Karst Formations
Roughly 20 million years of geological upheaval combined with the effects of erosion have carved out a landscape of caves and hollows and jagged shapes. Happily, the waters here seem cleaner than where we have been kayaking the day before (see: Spring Rolls and Winter Weather).
Cong Dam Fishing Village
We kayaked past some of the boats and floating houses that are part of Cong Dam, a small fishing village comprising around 120 people. According to our guide, these families used to live in the caves that riddle the islands, but they were moved into villages when Bái Tử Long was established as a National Park in 2001.
We and our companions are dwarfed by the landscape around us as we head back to our boat.
As we cruise away from Cong Dam, the sea-haze settles in around us and the horizon almost disappears.
We watch the local fisher people go about their daily business.
Fisher Woman in a Rowboat
In the afternoon haze, the colours change from one moment to the next.
Boat on the Bay
Hon Co Island
It is late afternoon when we arrive at Hon Co Island.
Sundown from Hon Co Island
We are tendered to the island, shown the steps up to the cave where we will later eat, and where we have wonderful afternoon views over the water.
Sunset from Hon Co Island
We are told our tender will take us back to the boat to change for dinner at six pm, giving us just over an hour for more ‘swimming or relaxing’.
Dog on the Beach
Back down the steps from the cave, a dog keeps an eye on us while we watch the sun go down.
Hon Co Island belongs to the Indochina Junk company. A family of care-takers lives on site.
On the Beach
Thien Canh Son Cave
Later, we return to the island, climb the 100-odd steps up to Thien Canh Son Cave, then descend into it, guided by burning tea-lights and welcomed by clapping staff. Candles and flower petals are everywhere.
The attention to detail is wonderful. Our chef presents us with a pair of ‘Love Swans’ carved from turnips for good luck and happiness. (iPhone6)
The pièce de résistance is an elaborate dragon, carved from marrow. Dragons feature hugely in the folk-lore of this area.
According to legend, a family of dragons was sent by the gods to protect Vietnam from invaders. The dragons spat out jewels and jade which became a defensive wall of islands and islets in the bay. Once the danger had passed, the dragons settled in the waters. Hạ Long means ‘descending dragon’ and Bái Tử Long is where the dragon parted from her children when she ascended back to heaven..
With warmer weather, it would have been perfect!