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The dragons and the roof
Halong Bay was the chance to slow things down after the excitement of Hanoi. We took the 2 night cruise on Paradise Luxury 1, a wooden junk that provided a lovely mixture of good service, rich woods and comfortable decor combined with modern fittings.
Cue the inevitable legend (there’s often more than one version) attached to this UNESCO listed area. The gods are said to have sent dragons to help the Vietnamese defeat the Chinese and after the victory was secured they decided to stay. Thus the dragons turned into the islands and their tails became beaches and you know, when you look out into the early morning mist, you almost expect a dragon to come roaring through.
Cruising through the calm waters amongst the thousands of limestone islands (or Karsts as they are more correctly known) is a tranquil pleasure in itself but this was augmented with a number of excursions. We learnt about the floating fishing village of Cua Van, as we were rowed around by a local in a bamboo boat. Why are there so many husky like dogs here (we asked)? They keep the wolves, monkeys and other wild animals away from the village whilst we sleep (was the reply). We explored a number of limestone caves, the best being Hang Sung Sot with its vast caverns, erosion formed rock formations and dimpled ceilings. The caverns were beautifully lit and the guides were at pains to point out that this rock looked like an elephant, that one like a lady … really? There was one though that looked like someone was sitting on the top of the cave mouth with their legs dangling into the abyss. I definitely did a double take on that one. I was glad I’d brought some comfortable shoes though as there were upwards of 600 steps to negotiate in this cave and 400+ to get to the panoramic view at the top of Titop island (so named after the visit of the Russian cosmonaut). Another serene outing on a bamboo boat saw us pass through a cave, called dark and light, a modest grotto that sits at the base of a large wooded bay.
We were even treated to a couple of monkey appearances to make the day even more pleasurable, surveying the humans to see if there was something edible to pinch. There was an option to swap the local bamboo boat for a kayak but it was a bit chilly and the inevitable wet bottie just didn’t seem that appealing.
Food throughout the cruise was exquisite and enhanced our growing appreciation of Vietnamese cuisine. Cooking demonstrations were held nightly, just in case we wanted to recreate the local fare when we returned home. Traditional dress was also provided so we could dress up in vibrant colours and have fun soaking up the local culture.
It’s worth saying that the area is getting a bit overcrowded and on the first day there were so many boats around. It’s great doing the 2 night trip as the day boat takes you a little further afield on the second day and it is much quieter, plus its where you get to see many of the things I’ve mentioned above. To protect the environment the plan is to significantly reduce the number of boats by 2020 but that will also see the removal of all the wooden boats for metal hulled versions. So if you want to cruise on a more traditional vessel, make your plans soon.
An hour’s flight from Hanoi took us to Hue and an opportunity to visit the Citadel, home to the Nguyen emperors. Built in the 1800s, it’s 2m thick walls measure 10km around and are combined with a 30m moat to fortify this Royal enclosure. Sadly dilapidated in parts from neglect and the results of bomb blasts, the restoration programme is making strides to return it to its former glory. There is a great video which gives a digital representation of how it would have looked in its heyday. Unfortunately there is a typo in the English subtitles where a p is used instead of a b to describe the ‘crab’ roof. Ooops! Our excellent guide (Tu) filled our minds with history and tales of the Imperial Enclosure and Forbidden City, including the now ruined enclosure that housed one of the King’s 500+ concubines (busy boy!). Tu organised a couple of rickshaws to get us around, which not only saved our legs but meant we could shut our eyes when negotiating the hairiest traffic situations. A trip through the morning market was also an experience, jovial mayhem seemed the best way to describe it, but the locals looked very comfortable buying the ingredients for that night’s meal. The rickshaws took us alongside the river where it was fun to see Water Buffalo roaming and chomping at the grass. It’s called the Perfume river, although it’s not the name that immediately springs to mind, something to do with the King smelling a nice flower there, we found out. Later we tasted the local beer that included (much filtered) water from the river, so I gained a whole new appreciation for the Perfume river.
The fun had only just begun in Hue but you’ll have to wait for the next chapter to find out what happened next.