On day two of our Vietnam tour we visit the stunning landscape of Tam Coc. It has been said that Tam Coc is the terra firma version of famous Halong Bay. Like Halong, it is the geology that is special here, with karst stacks and towers jutting up from the valley floor. While not as vast and high as the karst formations of southern China and Halong, those of Tam Coc are still breathtaking to behold. The activity one comes for is a slow, luxurious paddle up the river to and through the three caves (like the hongs of Thailand) which give the area its name (Tam Coc means “Three Caves”). The unique element is the manner in which one is rowed. The locals here have perfected a technique whereby they row the small boats with their feet. Its fascinating, pleasing, and of course, extremely photogenic. And the experience is sublime. Drifting peacefully along past rice paddies and occasional temples, always with the stunning backdrop of the karst formations, propelled by your own private rower. At first your ‘rower’ is likely to chatter on in Vietnamese with a big smile on his or her face. But eventually they settle in to the task at hand and you are left in silence to enjoy the show drifting by. The caves themselves are fun, creating echoes in the darkness and emerging again to sunshine – like emerging from the gates of Hades into the world of light and the living. There are even entrepreneurial locals who row out to meet you with cold drinks for sale.
On day three we headed out for one of the great natural wonders of the world, Halong Bay. Halong is probably the most majestic collection of karst stacks and islands anywhere in the world. The marine setting makes it even more spectacular. Most of us are familiar with this natural wonder from movies or nature shows on television. But as always, seeing something on a screen hardly compares to the real experience. Around 2000 karst tower-islands sprout from the bay making a truly spectacular vista. Most are shrouded in jungle vegetation and many are pierced by erosion-created grottos and lagoons. Apart from visiting one of the larger caves, which we did, one can swim or kayak or simply sail around the bay marveling at the exquisite formations. Excursion boats are everywhere. But we opted to spend the night on the bay – in our opinion, the only way to experience this wonder. We slept on converted junks which were quite comfortable. Small but comfortable cabins with AC, a tiny desk, and ensuite bathrooms. And the food (fresh seafood of course) was some of the best on the tour.
Ha Long means “descending dragon”. Various Vietnamese legends all suggest the islands were created by a great dragon or dragons. One suggests a great mountain dragon came crashing into the sea, its tail thrashing about creating the geologic chaos that characterizes the area. Eventually, it settled on the seabed, its spiny dorsal creating the stalagmite islands. Another suggests a family of dragons was sent by the gods to protect Vietnam from invaders. The dragons spewed jewels into the bay, each of which sprouted into one of the protecting islands. The scientific explanations are not as fun, but any way one chooses to believe, the results are beyond spectacular and not to be missed.
Imprint Tours has a group visiting Vietnam right now with colleagues Sarah Murdoch and Trish Feaster. Follow their adventures on FB, Twitter, and/or Instagram: thetravelphile and adventureswithsarahm