Day 3 of our Vietnam tour was the most spectacular of the trip. Our destination was the stunning, world-famous Halong Bay: 2000+ karst islands scattered throughout the green water of the Gulf of Tonkin. As is so often the case, the local name for the bay is poetically appropriate.
Ha Long translates to “where the dragon descends into the sea.” In fact, local legend suggests the islands were created by a dragon. Descending from the mountains in a rage, the mystic creature gouged out rifts and valleys with its slashing tail and when it finally hit the water it settled on the bay floor leaving only the spines of its horny back exposed. Of course the geological explanation is far less dramatic. But however Halong was created, the result is spectacular. This mystical geography was designated a World Heritage site in 1994 and is listed on virtually every version of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.
After a pleasant drive past rice patties and wheat fields we arrived at Halong City where we boarded our sailing junk for our overnight on the bay. The boat was quite comfortable with a big dining salon illuminated by wrap-around windows. A small deck area in front of the salon became the favorite gathering place for drinks and drinking in. The top deck, with a double row of reclining deck chairs was another popular refuge during our 24 hours on the water. The cabins were plain but comfortable, each with a private bathroom and shower. As we were to find every single day in Vietnam, the food at lunch and dinner was elaborate, varied, delicious, visually creative, and copious!
After our meals we mostly dropped groaning onto one of the deck chairs (or onto our cabin beds in some cases).
We needn’t have had any activities during our day of sailing. Simply sitting on deck, breathing the fresh salt-sea air, listening to the calls of many varieties of birds, and taking in the scenery was all the entertainment we needed. But Halong is famous for its caves so we made a visit to Hang Sung Sot, or Surprise Cave. A long climb up stairs from the dock was rewarded by wonderful views back across the cove where our junk was anchored. Then we were guided by our escort Bon through the interior labyrinth. The walls sparkle with crystals, stalactites and stalagmites bristle, and great cauliflower rock growths graced the various chambers. For adventurous early-risers, there was an opportunity to kayak the next morning.
After the kayakers returned and we had another huge meal for breakfast we headed back toward Halong City. Bon made sure our captain took a different route home so we could enjoy as much of the bay’s scenery as possible. Arriving back in Hanoi mid-afternoon, we had time to refresh in our hotel day-use rooms before heading out for Water Puppet Theater, one of Vietnam’s premier performance art forms. Puppet theater seems to be pretty standard throughout Southeast Asia, but this waterbourne version is certainly unique. Puppets and puppeteers perform in a large tank of illuminated blue water. Art reflects life, traditional rural Vietnamese life that revolves around water. Ducks, frogs, dragons, and fish share the liquid stage with human figures in the stylized dance of life on the water. Courtships evolve, business is transacted, land and water are worked. The entire panoply is accompanied by a live orchestra and the performance is liberally punctuated with smoke, fireworks, explosions, bells, and whistles. It was a fun! A perfect sendoff for Hanoi and the north.