When we pulled up to Ha Long Bay harbour side and I spotted our Jolly Roger-style junk boat set against the backdrop of thousands of limestone islands, I began to think that this was one Vietnam tour that might – just might – not be a rip off.
A UNESCO World Heritage site situated in the Gulf of Tonkin off the northeast coast of Vietnam, Ha Long Bay is considered by many to be the eighth natural wonder of the world. Therefore it’s an essential part of any backpacker’s itinerary in South East Asia.
Living like pirates
Our tour group consisted of 16 people and the boat comfortably accommodated all of us. When we set sail everyone dispersed to explore what would be our waterborne home for the next couple of days. The lower deck housed our cute wood-panelled cabins, which were no bigger than the average double bed but came complete with ensuite shower room. The cosy sitting/dining area was in the middle deck and above that was the sun deck with chairs and loungers.
We were soon gliding through the stunning scenery of limestone outcrops covered with bright green vegetation and humming with wildlife. We stopped off to visit a spectacular cave with a high domed ceiling like a natural opera house long ago carved out by waves. As the sun began to drop we moored up in the midst of these peaks, where – along with at least 20 other tour boats – we would spend the night.
As soon as the boat came to a standstill we couldn’t be stopped from hurling ourselves into the emerald water to escape the heat. It also gave us the chance to work up an appetite for the feast that was to follow.
A fantastic feast
Anh, our perma-smiled guide who liked saying “Ammaaaaaazing!” a little too frequently, brought out bowls of leek and potato soup. These were followed by big vats of rice, platters of fish, beef, squid, and spring rolls. They gave us just enough time to feel full before we were presented with a pork dish, vegetables, fries, and then several bushels of fresh fruit for dessert.
The next day we were dropped off at an island where Anh led us five kilometres to a small village. The plan was to continue for a further trek up a mountain and, despite Anh’s best efforts to put us off with warnings about a slippery and dangerous path, most of the group were keen to do it. Unfortunately we hadn’t been warned about the trek before we left the boat wearing flip flops, so we had no choice but to sit and stew in a cafe for two hours while the others went off.
We had better luck in the afternoon, when the boat moored up in a particularly beautiful area where we were able to kayak between isolated beaches until the sun began to sink. As I lay in the shallows of a clear turquoise sea, surrounded by peaks distant and near, I had a true “Now this is what it’s all about!” moment that only travelling can bring.