Halong Bay

Legend tells of a mountain dragon plummeting towards Vietnam’s coastline during a great war, its thrashing tail carving out cavernous crevasses and gaping valleys from the rock. As the mighty beast tumbled into the ocean, an almighty wave engulfed the mountain landscape, leaving only the craggy crests of those ancient peaks.

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The karst peaks of Halong Bay are on the front of every travel brochure on Vietnam. Google places to go in South East Asia and, chances are, Halong Bay will make top three. However, it doesn’t take an experienced traveller to realise that the beauty of the places you visit doesn’t often live up to expectations built on Lonely Planet descriptions. I was dreading fleets of tourist boats and pollution choking the much-photographed (and photoshopped) waters of the bay. Refreshingly, Halong Bay is one of the rare cases in which you feel like you’ve stepped into a painting. Even in less-than-optimum weather, Halong Bay was stunning.

That isn’t to say our whole experience was picture-perfect. It was not. The first difficulty was getting there. We mistakenly believed that we would be able to get a direct sleeper bus from Phong Nha – in fact, we had to change in Hanoi. The first forty minutes or so of the journey was spent stopping at every single hostel on Phong Nha’s one street. Why there couldn’t be just one meeting point is beyond me. Vietnam logic. The rest of the ride was uneventful; I slept all the way to Hanoi. Arriving in Hanoi at dawn, we embarked on an unanticipated trek to where we had to catch our next bus; at least it wasn’t as far as several taxi drivers claimed it was, which ranged from seventeen to seventy kilometres (it was about a kilometre). We grabbed a banh mi from a streetside stall while we waited for the second bus which didn’t drop us in Halong City as we’d been told it would.

For those wanting to do a cruise of Halong Bay, book it in Hanoi – the bus and boat will be included and you will be dropped off at the harbour prior to departure. This, I believe, is what most sensible people do. For those that are less sensible book a hostel in Halong City, find yourself at a harbour a good fifteen kilometres away from there and spend a stressful half hour arguing with taxi drivers, all of whom swear blindly that there isn’t a bus and that you must pay an extortionate fare to get to where you want to go. Of course, there is a bus and that’s how we eventually got to the city which is not much to speak of (another reason just to do a cruise).

One positive of being in Halong itself was Bai Tho or Poem Mountain which is in the heart of the city. We shared a taxi there with some French people we had met in our hostel and started the climb together (they had to go back when they realised they’d left a phone in the taxi). Despite the guy in our hostel telling us what a challenging climb the mountain was, it really was more of a hill. We stormed up it, barely breaking a sweat (something to be savoured in South East Asia) and stopped still at the sight that awaited us at the top. The whole bay was spread out beneath us, rocky forest-carpeted crags rising from the ocean, the ones in the distance fading into an ethereal mist. Birds of prey wheeled about the huge limestone mounds, surfing the currents of the winds as they hovered then dove through the rugged valleys of karst seascape. Although the day hadn’t been particularly clear, the clouds parted for a watery sunset, the sun’s pinky light shimmering hazily on the sea. We sat on a rocky outcrop and watched the water turn from green to pink to orange before descending back to the town. Some faith was restored in humanity when we discovered that the French girl had got her phone back from the taxi driver.

 

The next day we commenced our cruise of the bay. My fear of a legion of gridlocked tourist vessels rose again in my chest as we walked through the harbour to find our ship past rows and rows of boats. However, when we got out into the bay, this fear dissipated: although the occasional boat floated past, our only neighbours were the karst cliffs towering above us. We spent the day happily sailing round this mystical landscape, exploring barnacle covered coves of azure water in bamboo boats and climbing up to get to viewpoints of the bay on a couple of islands. It was on these islands that you really realised how many tourists had flocked to the bay, practically having to elbow your way up steep staircases past people who had stopped to rest in the middle of the path only to be assaulted at the top by selfie stick-wielding visitors hell-bent on getting the ‘perfect shot’.  Although the views were good, they weren’t as good as those of Poem Mountain and we were rather relieved to get back on the boat.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe other not-so-perfect part of our experience occurred towards the end of the day, when Roza realised she had lost her purse. We had had to change boats halfway through the day and she had assumed she’d left it on the first boat. However, the guy on our boat had radioed back to the first vessel: they had her purse, it was all fine. But then he started to demand money from us alleging that we had not paid for a number of the day’s activities. We had, and gave him the number of our hostel so they could confirm this. He paid no attention and started to blackmail us, stating that he would not give back the purse if we did not pay him. We got back to land, where it transpired the purse was left on the bus we’d caught to the harbour. Two things we learnt from this: firstly to keep valuables on us at all times and secondly that some people won’t hesitate to lie through their teeth if they have something to gain from you. Of course, these people are not in the majority – a number of people helped get the purse back – but it is sadly something to be aware of when travelling. I do not wish to end on this note. Halong Bay is an area of outstanding natural beauty with its emerald topped peaks amidst an cerulean ocean topped with a snaking mist. And we didn’t even see it on a sunny day. I’ll leave you with a story.

Legend tells of a mountain dragon plummeting towards Vietnam’s coastline during a great war, its thrashing tail carving out cavernous crevasses and gaping valleys from the rock. As the mighty beast tumbled into the ocean, an almighty wave engulfed the mountain landscape, leaving only the craggy crests of those ancient peaks. The story is the bay’s namesake, for ‘Halong’ literally translates as ‘where the dragon descends’. Whether the dragon ascended or will ascend once again may be lost in the mists of myth. That would certainly make an original Instagram. Alas, that wasn’t to be on my own visit. For now, the dragon may slumber submerged beneath the surface of the water, tail spikes mistaken for just another jagged pinnacle.

Another journey: the dawn

Travelling evokes a tremendous sense of satisfaction, yet simultaneously creates a certain restlessness. After Borneo, I was left with many wonderful memories and experiences but also an itch to get back on the road, to take to the skies and seas of the world. They call it the ‘travel bug’ and I, like my mother before me, am well and truly infected.
So, within a month of having returned to England, I found myself poring over maps spread over the kitchen counter, travelling continents with my fingertips, oceans with my eyes. Where to go? Everywhere. But I had to be realistic and I narrowed it down, first to Asia and then to the South East. At the beginning of January I had booked my flights: London to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Singapore to Kilimanjaro (Tanzania) and Kili back to Blighty. I had also booked a tour around Myanmar (Burma) for May, which started in Thailand, giving me effectively three months to get to Thailand. My vague plan was to travel up North through Vietnam, down through Laos, across Cambodia to Thailand, tour round Myanmar, then travel South through Thailand and across to Malaysia. Since returning from Borneo, my desire to climb Mt Kinabalu, for me an image from trek of perserverence and strength, had only grown and so I planned to include this in my travels. My adventure would be concluded with an eight-day climb of Mt Kilimanjaro with my family – standard family holiday. I would be away approximately six months.

I said goodbye to my family, and to York, on the 29th of January. The sun was shining as the train departed York railway station, reflecting the tears in my mother’s eyes, and in my own, through the open window (which I was politely asked to close). Waving goodbye made all my plans seem solid, less of an exotic fairytale, and I felt equal amounts of excitement and trepidation. Before I left the country, I had a fun weekend in London with a few of my best friends, some of whom would be joining me in a few months for some of my travels. It was the perfect way to spend my last few days in England.
When I left my friend’s flat in Barbican on Tuesday on foot with my huge backpack, the sky was still dark, the stars veiled by London’s shroud of pollution. I took a tube and two trains to the airport, where I met a several friends who would travel with me to Saigon. My first stop was Mumbai, India, where I would spend almost ten hours trying to sleep on cold marble benches in the airport’s ‘garden’ and being bitten by the flies that dwelt among the plants. It was a bit worrying that our flight to HCM wasn’t actually on the departures board and, on investigation, it transpired that we were actually travelling via Bangkok, Thailand. Nice of the airline for telling us.
It was a beautiful flight, although I slept for much of it (surprisingly: I never sleep on flights). Leaving Mumbai was like a scene in a travel documentary. Looking out of the window, I could see where the land met the sea, blurred by a soft blanket of mist. Flying over India, mountains rose gently above a swirl of cloud, which emmenated a golden glow in the morning sun. Watching this elegant landscape pass me by made me rather sad that I wasn’t visiting India, which is probably in my top five of countries that I wish to visit. When we arrived at Bangkok, we didn’t actually leave the plane, but sat, sleepily bemused as a purposeful-looking team of aircraft staff cleaned the plane around us in about ten minutes flat. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such cleaning efficiency; I was very impressed. As the plane lifted off again, I fell asleep, briefly waking up to an exquisite view of a shimmering network of rivers meandering like veins across an emerald province.

We touched down in Vietnam to the sight of the setting sun over a patchwork of paddyfields. Leaving the airport, we ran with our heavy bags to catch the bus to take us to our hostel, but it turned out that this was the last one, leaving us with no other option but to take a taxi. After several arguments with various taxi companies trying to charge us extortionate rates, we eventually managed to get ourselves some sort of discount (it still wasn’t a very good price but we were too tired by this point to haggle any more; we got them down by almost half). Half an hour later, we were standing at the mouth of an alleyway in a mostly deserted fruit and vegetable market, while traffic and people streamed by on the road behind us, a cacophony of car horns. The email from the hostel had told us to ‘get in the alley’ and, after a deep breath, we did so. When it came into sight, a few doors down, we gave a great whoop: we had finally arrived!

Good evening Vietnam
Good evening Vietnam