By Agnès Bun
Travelers, beware ! Like the sirens in Homer’s fables, Halong Bay captivates adventurers. Impossible to resist its bewitching beauty and its unique rocky landscapes, polished by thousand-year-old waves. Let yourself be carried along by the water for an unforgettable odyssey…
The wood of the boat creaks softly, cutting through the waves at a steady pace. Around you, as far as the eye can see, rocks overgrown with emerald vegetation, posed as hyphens between sky and sea. You are finally alone in the world … or almost.
Each year, millions of people succumb to the charm of Halong Bay, an essential stopover for any traveler to Vietnam. Water, clouds and a pinch of thousands of limestone islands … These are the elements that make up this watercolor with the lunar silhouette, painted some 500 million years ago by a particularly inspired nature. Located in the north-east of Vietnam, three and a half hours drive from Hanoi, its magical beauty and unique ecosystem earned it a more than deserved inscription in 1994 on the Unesco World Heritage List.
In the wake of the Dragon
Every natural wonder has its legend, and Along Bay is no exception: a dragon is said to have slashed the surrounding mountains with its tail flapping, sculpting the landscape with its artistic fever. This explains the name of the work left in its wake: Hạ Long means “the descent of the Dragon” in Vietnamese. An aesthetic but also strategic heritage: these labyrinthine rocks once enabled the Vietnamese to repel the invasions of the Chinese and Kubilai Khan. At the end of the 18th century, pirates took refuge there to escape the wrath of the authorities. We had to wait for the arrival of the first French at the end of the 19th century – whose graffiti we can still admire on the walls of some caves! – so that the splendor of the bay is revealed in broad daylight. Since then, his photogenic nature has not wavered. The place served as the setting for the film Indochine (1992), remembered for its breathtaking landscapes.
By boat, swimsuit and kayak
There are as many ways to enjoy your stay as there are islands in the bay! Lovers of idleness will let themselves go to contemplate from the deck of the boat the rocks with majestic silhouettes parading in front of them. The souls of explorers will prefer to slalom between the stalactites and stalagmites of the multiple caves with evocative names: Surprise Cave, Wonders Cace, Dragon Cave … Finally, those who wish to perfect their tan can laze on the beaches. Be careful, they are often crowded, especially in the afternoon; Club Med atmosphere rather than Robinson Crusoe … Do you want to exercise? Grab a paddle and explore caves and floating villages by kayak. Built by generations of fishermen, these are still home to some 1,600 inhabitants with a traditional way of life. On board your boat, the adventure continues! You can participate in Vietnamese cooking classes to learn how to roll spring rolls like no one else, skin your favorite karaoke hits, or try your luck at squid fishing!
The Love Boat is fun… or disillusioned
The vast majority of visitors opt for all-inclusive packages, including transport, accommodation, English-speaking guide and meals. Companies abound, prices vary, but the program stays pretty much the same. The difference is in the quality of the food, the comfort of the cabins, the service on board (the most luxurious boats even offer massages and jacuzzi) and the average age of tourists! The mid-range formulas, from 60 to 80 euros per person for two days, attract more young adventurers, while the higher services, charged more than 100 euros, are favored by families and older vacationers. It’s up to you to determine in which company you want to travel! You will also have to choose between a two-day stay, including one night on the boat, or a three-day stay – with one night on board and one night on the neighboring island of Cat Ba. Two days are more than enough to taste the magic of the place, but an extra day will allow you to discover Cat Ba National Park, ideal for trekking or cycling. It is also possible to explore Halong Bay in a single day, but this option is strongly discouraged: with a total of seven hours, you will only have a few moments nose to the wind, before leaving more frustrated than amazed…
Finally, be careful when booking: scams abound in Hanoi, the epicenter of the vast majority of tours. Avoid buying your tickets through your hotel, a high commission will be charged. Better to go to an independent agency. Here too, be wary when choosing it, quality ones often see their name “borrowed” by unscrupulous brands! So check the addresses on the Internet before going there. Also not recommended, companies that do not have their own boat, the risk of unpleasant surprises being increased tenfold. The exaggeratedly low prices (less than 50 euros per person for two days) should also be taken with a grain of salt: you risk finding yourself on a crowded tub with spartan comfort, “Raft of the Medusa” atmosphere! In the summer, make sure you get a refund on the cruise in the event of a typhoon cancellation. For those allergic to organized tours, it is also possible to rent your own boat to navigate the bay at your own pace, generally from Cat Ba. More expensive than all-inclusive stays, this formula allows you to think outside the box. Finally alone !
Threats to the bay…
Night has fallen, spreading its ceiling of stars above the hundreds of boats slumbering on the water, all painted white since a 2012 law making this color mandatory. A timid effort by the government to try to regulate an industry that sings the wonders of the bay while slowly suffocating it. Because the thousand-year-old splendor of Halong Bay is beginning to give way under the blows of mass tourism and its scourges as ordinary as they are inexorable: pollution, degradation of caves, looting of the seabed … But this beauty with a heart of stone is not yet ready to be taken for granted. Despite the onslaught of modernization, we can bet that its towering rocks will outlast generations of tourists and continue to soar towards the clouds in a perpetual abortive embrace.