Discovering dragons and pearls in Halong Bay

Calm waters of Halong Bay

Visiting the colossal limestone formations of Halong Bay in Vietnam has been on my bucket list for a few years now, so when I had the opportunity to go recently, I was on that plane quicker than you can say “check in”!

A flight from Bangkok to Hanoi took just under two hours. There were eight of us and we arrived early enough to be able to do some exploring and recharge our batteries before the start of our two night/three day cruise in Halong the next day.

At 8am we were picked up from our hotel by our very happy and friendly Vietnamese tour guide, David. I wasn’t expecting to have a guide accompany us during our trip so this was a bit of a bonus – it’s always good to have someone on your trip that knows the local way of life and who, if you’re anything like me, you can fire all your questions at!

The organisation of the tour was all very slick, something I have to say can be a little hit or miss in neighbouring countries like Thailand. The journey by minivan from Hanoi to Halong took four and a half hours, including a 30min break half way.

We arrived at Hon Gai Harbour with a fine drizzle of rain over our heads and slightly shattered dreams on my part – had I really travelled all this way for the magnificent scenery I would often awe over in travel magazines back home, to be masked by swathes of dark cloud?

As we were transferred to the boat we would call home for the next two nights, the welcome we received was a lot brighter than the weather – on arrival we were showered with rose petals as we walked up the stairs to the main dining area where lunch was ready to be served. I think the last time I was showered with rose petals was over two years ago at my wedding! It was a really nice welcome and a great first impression – if these were the kind of gestures I could expect from the rest of the cruise then I knew I had chosen well.

What girl doesn’t like to be showered with rose petals?!

On the top deck Halong Bay Cruise

Balcony cabin on Garden Bay Cruise Halong Bay

There are so many tours operating  in Halong Bay that it can be a little difficult to know which company to go with, but if you decide what it is that you want from the trip then you can soon whittle the options down. Our group made up over half of the guests on the tour so there was an intimate feel to our time on board. I chose Garden Bay Cruise based on price, size of boat/occupancy and itinerary/available activities.

As we escaped the harbour and headed into the depths of Bai Tu Long Bay, the limestone cliffs slowly started introducing themselves, and I began to feel they’d just been teasing me all this time. Phew, I WAS going to be able to take some photos worthy of sharing! There are around 1600 islands in Halong Bay and as we started cruising I felt that I was in the southern Thailand provinces of Phang-Nga and Krabi.

Vietnamese woman with her catch for the day
Vietnamese woman with her catch for the day

There was plenty of time to relax while we were onboard. We paid a little extra to have our own balcony, which I definitely think was worth it. Although I like travelling in groups I also like to be able to have some quiet ‘me time’ and having this little bit of space that I could take myself off to every now and again was a welcome retreat – as I sat there one afternoon I thought about the translation of Halong, which is ‘where the dragon descends into the sea’ and the legend that claims Halong Bay was created by a dragon that descended from the mountains, carving out valleys and crevasses with its tail. There are of course some geological theories for how Halong Bay came to be for all you sceptics out there!

Room with a view - Garden Bay Cruise Halong Bay
Room with a view – great place for me and my thoughts!

On our first afternoon we visited Vung Vieng floating fishing village on a bamboo boat and in the evening we had a go at vegetable carving and making our own Vietnamese spring rolls for dinner. Squid fishing was also an option but it was an early night for me as I was determined to wake up for Tai Chi at 6.30am the next morning. Ask me someday about my tiger move and I’ll show you!

Early morning Tai Chi on Halong Bay Cruise
Tai Chi – a great way to start the day

Waking up to the beauty of Halong Bay was an amazing experience. Although I had already taken in  its splendour the previous day, there was something extra special about waking up in the morning and opening the curtain to behold it all over again. I was pleasantly surprised at how peaceful it was; I was expecting there to be quite a lot of tours but there never seemed to be too many boats about, which was nice. The only downside at times was that pollution was quite noticeable in some areas.

It took 429 steps to reach this viewpoint

To start our second day we headed to Sung Sot or Surprise Cave. I’ve been to quite a few caves in various countries but I have to say this was one of the more majestic ones I’ve been to – at times it felt like I was on a film set and I was half expecting Yoda and his Star Wars friends to rock up. Ok, I know what you’re thinking – why is it called Surprise Cave? Damn, I forgot to ask David…but perhaps it’s because of the unexpected feeling of amazement you get when you enter it…or maybe it’s the silly girly giggles you get when you spot a huge phallic rock that the locals have decided to light up  (now that was a surprise!) And sorry, I’m not posting a pic!

I heart Surprise Cave
I heart Surprise Cave

Unfortunately my camera decided to pack up so I wasn’t able to take any decent photos inside the cave – you’ll just have to go for yourself one day!

We headed to a pearl farm in the afternoon – ‘great’, I thought, ‘we’re now going to have people trying to sell us lots of jewellery’. While there was the opportunity to buy pearls, there was no blatant attempt from anyone trying to sell you anything and I actually came away with a much greater knowledge about how pearls are harvested. I’ve always known where pearls come from but I never realised how they are formed or what us humans do (or how patiently we have to wait!) to harvest them. Pearl doctors train for two years and I was able to watch  one carry out ‘surgery’ on some of the oysters while I was there.

Pearl doctor at work
Oyster from the pearl farm
Oyster for my dinner

After a day of sightseeing and kayaking it was time for bed, but not before another game of Bananagram! For those of you not familiar with the game, it’s a bit like scrabble and comes in a small lightweight pouch so I’d recommend it as a game to take on your travels.

Banagram - great travel game
Thanks to Lyn and Glyn for introducing me to Bananagram!

For anyone thinking about doing a Halong Bay tour, one night tours are available but I think the two night tour is definitely the better option, especially if you’re coming from Hanoi. Any longer than two nights and I think I personally would have got a little bored – UNESCO World Heritage site or not, there’s only so much of cruising around limestone rocks you can do before it all becomes too familiar.

Me and my tour guide David

Anyone who knows me will know how much I love writing lists, and bucket lists are my favourite type. What a great feeling that I can now tick Halong Bay off my list! Ok, so I didn’t actually see any dragons, but  I did learn all about pearls.

Ticking Halong Bay off my bucket list
Don’t you just love the feeling of ticking something off your list?!

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