Another must-see for us in Vietnam was Ha Long Bay, a world heritage site about 180 km east of Hanoi. The resplendent waters of Ha Long Bay burst with some 1,969 limestone islets, some barren and craggy, many others draped with lush greenery. In Vietnamese, the name Ha Long means ‘descending dragon.’ And while there are countless twists on the legend of Ha Long Bay, it is largely believed that centuries ago, the ruling emperor sent a dragon to help the Vietnamese people defend the area from Chinese invaders, and that the benevolent creature descended upon the vast cove. As my birthday coincided with our stay in the northern part of the country, Stephan booked us a 3-day/2-night cruise with Vega Travel – a company that focuses on smaller groups, and who proved to be just outstanding with the execution of our tour.
Our guide, Duc (‘Duckie’), greeted us around 7:30 a.m. at our guesthouse in Hanoi, and we hopped on the bus for our 3.5-hour drive across the Red River Delta to the port. The ride went surprisingly quickly, as Duckie introduced us to many parts of Vietnamese culture, integrated with personal stories and often with a hilariously sarcastic twist. He’d grown up in a small village of rice farmers in the north of Vietnam before coming to Hanoi for an advanced education and a chance at a more lucrative and stable career. He told us a little about rice farming, and described how difficult it is to make a meaningful living from harvesting the important staple. Farm families typically have small plots of land of about 360 m2 (3,875 ft2). During an ideal year, about 400 kg (882 pounds) of rice is produced from two harvests. Worth about $0.80 USD/kg, that amounts to roughly $320. After paying a $20 tax on the property, the farmer walks away with an annual profit of only $300 ($0.70/day). To supplement income, especially during years of poor weather, families will often take additional work in factories to try to make ends meet. Duckie also went on to describe courtship and marriage customs, as well as regulations placed on having children. In Vietnam, the man pays a dowry to the bride’s family before the wedding and, in villages, compensation is often (at least partially) with buffalo. He proclaimed that he had paid two buffalo for his wife, going on to joke that he was still deciding if he got a good value. He then went on to detail Vietnam’s strict two child policy. Apparently, for each additional child you bring into the world, you must pay $80 to the government (quite a hefty fee considering the number of people in rural, agrarian villages). Additionally, if you hold a government job and have 3–5 children, your salary can be reduced in half as punishment; if you have 6 or more children, you can be fired entirely. Those employed by private companies have only slightly more protection – having more than two kids won’t get you fired, but you can still be forced to pay a hefty penalty to the government. Duckie mentioned that you will not be fined if your second ‘child’ turns out to unexpectedly be twins, as it’s considered beyond your control. However, if you have twins (as he does) and then another child, that is regarded as violation of the government policy.
After learning a lot and enjoying some laughs, we arrived at the marina and quickly boarded the 16-passenger, wooden ‘junk’ that would take us around the scenic inlet. We’d left Hanoi under gray skies and a steady, light rain, but just as we boarded our cozy boat, the clouds fortuitously broke apart, giving way to blue skies and welcome sunshine. After navigating out of the port, we headed for Bai Tu Long Bay, a more isolated section of Ha Long Bay. The numerous other boats quickly disappeared from sight and we were left with a landscape of enormous, limestone karsts – many blanketed with lush foliage – erupting on all sides from the tranquil, turquoise water.
We enjoyed an enormous spread for lunch, as we intently gazed at each rugged islet that we passed by. Eventually, the ship moored at Hang Sung Sot, a craggy cave carved into one of the limestone isles. While some of the cave formations were fairly interesting, we had just come from a spectacular 3-day caving adventure in the rural heart of the country. Needless to say, the far more accessible and visited stalactites and columns of Hang Sung Sot, awash in the garish glow of artificial lights, couldn’t compare to the isolated, natural beauty of the Tu Lan caves.
After exiting the underwhelming cavern, we hopped into some kayaks for a late-afternoon paddle around the bay. Duckie swiftly guided us through a short limestone tunnel to Hang Loun, a secluded grotto hidden within the tall walls of one of the islets. Once a large cave at the center of the island, the structure has long since collapsed, leaving a sheltered lagoon enclosed by towering limestone cliffs that is accessible only at lower tides through a narrow passageway. Here, we all jumped out of our kayaks for a refreshing swim in the undisturbed water as a group of macaques leapt enthusiastically through the tree-covered slopes overhead. After reveling in the grotto’s serenity, we climbed back into the kayaks and paddled ourselves around ‘Man Head Island’ and through ‘Butterfly Cave,’ under one of the most spectacular sunsets we’ve ever seen, eventually returning to the boat. We spent the rest of the evening anchored in the nearly-deserted corner of Ha Long Bay, enjoying the quiet night air and conversation with some of our fellow passengers. Much to my surprise, about midway through dinner the lights went out, and Duckie entered with a giant birthday cake to a chorus of singing. Apparently Stephan had asked the boat if they could do a simple birthday cupcake for me after the meal, and they instead opted for this elaborate scheme. With a sizzling roman candle ablaze in the center of the cake, the dazzling dessert looked like it was about to take off into orbit. As if that wasn’t enough, the flaring cake was followed immediately by a glittery bouquet of flowers and a birthday oration. My face flushed at the over-the-top presentation, but the cake was delicious and it was incredibly thoughtful for them to put so much extra effort into one guy’s request for a simple, celebratory cupcake.
Our second day afforded us the opportunity to disembark the boat for several hours and explore a couple of Ha Long’s picturesque islands. In the early morning, we headed to the top of Titop Island (named by President Ho Chi Minh after visiting the bay with Russian cosmonaut and hero, Gherman Titov) to take in the panoramic views from the summit. As the thick blanket of morning clouds lifted, we were treated to the sunlit glow of Ha Long’s emerald waters, speckled with boats along the base of neighboring isles.
From Titop Island, we headed southwest through Lan Ha Bay to Cat Ba National Park, an important biosphere reserve on Cat Ba Island that is home to the golden-headed langur, one of the world’s most endangered primates with a population of a mere ~65 individuals. Upon arriving at a small pier on the island’s southeast corner, we picked up a handful of bicycles and rode a short 4 kilometers from the waterfront to the remote, minority village of Viet Hai. Duckie informed us as we entered the village gate that Viet Hai’s tiny, concrete road had just been added within the past year, and that villagers first acquired bicycles and scooters only about eight years ago… it was like taking a step back in time. From the diminutive hamlet, we enjoyed an easy, 3-mile loop through the park’s dense forest. After returning to Viet Hai and hopping on our bikes, Duckie had us stop briefly at one of the homes to quickly show us how the villagers distill their own rice wine, and to offer us a sample of some homemade ‘snake wine.’ After distilling the potent liquor, venomous snakes are added to the final product, as the Vietnamese believe the concoction improves health and virility (note: the toxic compounds are apparently inactivated by the alcohol). I was hesitant to take a sip but, much like the tarantula leg in Phnom Penh, mustered up the nerve to try it. It tasted strongly medicinal, but as long as I avoided making eye contact with the bottled reptiles, I was able to swallow.
Back at the boat, Stephan and I were, surprisingly, the only two of the eight passengers who were keen for more afternoon activities. Thus, we grabbed a couple kayaks and, along with Duckie, set off to explore one of the nearby floating fishing villages. A number of the small, traditional communities are scattered throughout Ha Long Bay, with villagers living in houses built on petit, wooden platforms or sometimes on small, wooden boats. The housing platforms are tethered to limestone karsts that tower above the humble homes, and the numerous islets provide a sufficient barrier to protect the homes from powerful typhoons. Villagers sustain themselves on fishing and aquaculture; many families cultivate clams and oysters right off their floating homes, while many others harvest squid in enormous nets. While the villages are incredibly charming and peaceful, it’s difficult to imagine leading such a simple lifestyle. Upon returning to the boat from our lovely tour of the fishing community, we seized one final opportunity to enjoy the bay’s inviting waters with a swim and a few leaps from the top deck of the boat.
Our second evening was spent ashore, on Cat Ba Island. After navigating through Cai Beo, the area’s largest floating fishing village with a population of roughly 1,000 people, we docked at Ban Beo Harbor. Following two days of absolute tranquility on the water, we were somewhat stunned to find a string of enormous hotels and a boisterous downtown when we arrived in Cat Ba city. While the rest of the island appears to remain an idyllic haven, the small strip of overdeveloped, beachfront town with several thousand residents was a stark and surprising contrast. Nevertheless, we enjoyed another beautiful sunset over the bay from our sixth-floor balcony. As the sun went down, Stephan pulled out a special piece of paper that Duckie had handed to us the day before. When he was teaching us about various Vietnamese customs, he’d given us a thin piece of paper, printed to look like a U.S. banknote. In northern Vietnam, the money is called vàng mã – ‘ghost money’ – and is burned upon the passing of a relative. They believe that burning the currency will provide the deceased with necessary means as they transition to their next life. Grabbing a book of hotel matches, Stephan ignited the vàng mã in the light of the receding sun, sending Grandma Chase a little fun money for whatever comes her way in her next adventure.
We awoke early the next morning to return to our boat for our final day of sailing. We retraced our path from Cat Ba out of Lan Ha Bay, and headed for the numerous islets of Ha Long Bay. The morning’s voyage took us back to the marina through a cluster of 775 core islands, a huge number yet still only a fraction of the nearly 2,000 that burst from Ha Long’s crystalline waters. Breathtaking scenery, gorgeous weather, and a delicious cake with chocolate hearts – I’d say it was a pretty great way to celebrate 34!
Total distance: 56.8 miles