Friday, January 23, 2015

Descending Dragon Bay

A rock island in Ha Long Bay

Now, imagine a seascape dotted with thousands of such rock islands. Literally, as far as your eye can see. That's Ha Long Bay for you. 

As my boat sailed past these towering rock islands, I could imagine myself in a 'Pirates of the Carribean' movie. There was silence all around broken only by the hum of the engine. The rock islands stood like silent sentinels watching us go by. 

Overview of the bay showing the numerous islands. 
(Not 100% accurate as images have 
been stitched together)

Ha Long Bay (Descending Dragon Bay) is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site about 150 Kms from the capital Hanoi (approx 3 hrs drive). This makes it an easily accessible and popular holiday destination for Vietnamese and foreign tourists, alike. 

The bay is unusual and attractive because of the limestone karsts and islands that are strewn in the waters. Ha Long is just one part of a larger ecosystem of these rocks along the Vietnamese coastline. The awe-inspiring islands and karsts have been formed over millions of years of geographical activity - tectonic shifts, flooding, erosions etc. 

Today, the islands are characterised by thick vegetation which I'm sure is home to numerous birds and small animals, the base immersed in the sea, to a host of marine life. None of these I could get a closer look at as all the islands are not accessible. The islands are also marked by caves and grottos formed by eroding rock and soluble limestone. 

A cave entrance at sea level

A large hollow where boats were tethered

There are a few islands where tourists are allowed. These are ones with large cave systems which have been developed to make it more accessible to tourists. I visited one - Sung Sot Cave or Surprise Grotto. The tale goes that when the first visitors to these caves entered it, their reaction was of surprise and amazement. Simplicity itself. :)

I was a little apprehensive at first, as I didn't want to enter a small enclosed space with hundreds of people in them. But I was, shall we say, surprised at the size of the caves. They were huge, with high ceilings and fantastic limestone formations. 

Surprise Grotto is on Bon Hon island and probably the largest cave that exists in the area. It is therefore a popular cave with tour operators bringing loads of tourists here. Small mechanised boats bring you from the yacht to the jetty on the island. Then you have to climb a series of steep steps to reach the cave entrance. It is a moderately difficult climb and manageable for anyone in 'okay' shape. 

Jetty where the boats drop tourists off before the climb to the caves

Developing tourist spots is a good thing but maybe one can do this with a little less enthusiasm. This cave seemed very sanitised - no birds, bats or any thing else within or outside. Most of the natural structures inside were lit by flood lights giving the place a surreal look. To give the Vietnamese credit though, they had made access to the caves as easy as possible i.e. the steep climb to the cave was aided by well maintained steps which helped immensely. 

A viewpoint far up the rock climb

Scene from the viewpoint

In the bay there are a few floating villages too whose people are expert seafarers. They survive by fishing and marine culture. With the tour boats cruising by the villages and some even docking at them, the villagers now also sell trinkets and other tourist paraphernalia. 

It is said there are over 1,500 people living in these many floating villages. Though when we cruise past them, it didn't look like more than 50 people could live in one group of these floating units. The villages were very interesting as they seemed so fragile and miniscule as compared to the huge rocks and the vast waters surrounding them. 

Ha Long Bay can be visited by yacht tours which are very popular. They normally dock at the Tuan Chau marina, a fairly recent development that is continuing to expand. There are different types of yachts, varied budgets and itineraries that you can choose from. Be sure to get a recommended and reliable option as safety standards are not always up to the mark. 

Yachts docked at the marina

A cabin in one of the yachts
I took a half day tour with Paradise Cruises which is one of the larger operators in the area. They also have different duration tours including overnight stays on the yachts. 

A view of the city from afar

I didn't have much of a chance to check out the city and its sights in the one day I was there. But, I'm glad I at least managed to sail the waters of this vast and impressive bay. 

My cruise trip ended with the sunset over Ha Long Bay. 


  1. Thank you for the wonderful virtual tour of Halong Bay!

    1. Thank you for stopping by. I'm glad you liked it. :)

  2. Lovely place to go. Definitely in my travel bucket in the coming 2-3 years.

    1. Yes, it's a lovely, scenic place. Thanks for stopping by, Avik