My heart thumps steadily as I push through the last of the 420 steps up titop island. The view from up here is far more breathtaking than the ascent. Our group gathers at the lookout and gazes rather silently at the view; cameras busily snapping away. The panorama reveals many islands in either direction. These limestone karsts stand over the water like towers. They are capped with a thick tangle of emerald vegetation with vines that drape down their steep grey walls. The water is turquoise at sea level but looks a brilliant deep blue from this height.
Just yesterday we arrived from bustling Hanoi to this stunning world heritage site. The Quay at Halong City was filled with white, wooden boats and there our ‘Junk’ awaited us. The name conjures up thoughts of a boat destined for the sea floor or one that should be sold for scrap. Despite the misnomer, a stay on one of these vessels is not akin to a night in a half star hotel, but rather a surprisingly comfortable experience with a touch of class.
We cruise over the calm waters pointed in the direction of what seems like a wall of rock in the distance. As we creep closer, gaps in the islands appear and we distinguish a course through the maze.
The boat moors up, surrounded by islands on all sides, like pirates in a sheltered cove. We soon step onto terra firma to visit the largest cave in Halong Bay; the cave of surprises. A noticeable sign depicts the seven natural wonders of the world, not forgetting to include the star attraction; Halong Bay itself. It helps to highlight how special this place is and also some other natural heavyweights that share similar bragging rights. Each of the three caves is larger and more impressive than the previous. We make our way through the well lit caverns, inspecting the stalactites and stalagmites. Occasionally we notice familiar shapes in the rock. We see a lion, a turtle, a face, a Buddha and many others. We venture deeper into the cave, eventually circling around, emerging into daylight once again.
Without missing a beat, we find ourselves sliding into kayaks to get up close and personal with our surroundings. After circling a few different islands we make our way through a large tunnel in another. The opening on the other side reveals an enclosed lagoon reminiscent of an Alex Garland novel. We watch some monkeys perform acrobatics in the tree tops above us and others hanging out by the rocky shore. Reluctantly, we eventually pull ourselves away from the stunning nature around us and begin to paddle back.
A delicious aroma wafts the kitchen below and before we know it course after course is laid in front of us and I feel like I’ve died and gone to food heaven. Soft fried fish balls, delightfully chewy squid; fat prawns dipped in tangy lime juice and whole chicken curry. It hardly gets better than this. Plates of local vegetable dishes and a plethora of other fresh seafood get passed around in what feels like a very communal dining experience. It’s fitting that we are dining like family now and will no doubt feel a little like a family by the end of the tour.
There is a show of lights of as other Junks sit glimmering all around us in the still night air. We appreciate the view as we sip our drinks on the upper deck, reliving the great day we had just shared. It is difficult not to consider Halong Bay as a highlight of the tour. The unique beauty really lends credit to its popularity.
The best part of it all is…I know I’ll be back!
An overnight stay on a junkboat in Halong Bay is included on our Adventure Tours to Vietnam. This excursion is available as an optional excursion on some Budget Expeditions of South East Asia.