March 24, 2020

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Dec 2018

Imagine.  A bay that is, with 1553 sq km area,  about 3.6 times the size of Chennai.  Bluish green water.  Thousands of tall Karst mountains that look like natural skyscrapers scattered on water.  The mountains have hollow spaces inside (providing caves through which one can ascend the heights) and lush vegetation outside.  That is Ha Long Bay for you.

Ha Long Bay is a top tourist attraction in the world and receives 15 million visitors a year (about twice the number of visitors to Taj Mahal in India).

The best way to see it is in a three day cruise in a local boat.  We booked a room in a 40 bed cruise.  Fortunately a Chinese gentleman wanted to celebrate his 60th birthday with his entire family and sought to take over the entire ship for a private cruise.  The cruise company was embarrassed and offered us a smaller private cruise boat with just 2 rooms.  Wife and I and a young American on a "find the world" tour had the entire boat for ourselves.  With six crew to serve three passengers we were treated as royalty.  The cruise itself was an awesome vacation without factoring the place where the boat was sailing.

Our cruise boat.  Three days.  Three passengers in Two rooms.  Six crew.  Luxury.

Karst mountains?  Karst mountains are limestone rocks pushed up by Earth above sea level.  Some parts of the rock dissolve over a long period of time leaving tall pillars scattered all around water.  Karst mountains in Ha Long Bay are monolithic (one rock) islands with hollow spaces inside (one can navigate through the caves deep inside and on occasions to the very top) and covered by lush vegetation.  The Karst in Ha Long Bay, geologists say, took more than 500 million years to form.

Typical Karst mountain in Ha Long Bay

Karst mountains in Ha Long Bay

Karst mountains in Ha Long Bay

The Dau go cave is a favorite spot for cruise boats.  One can walk up the cave (holding the handrail for the life of you in darkness and climbing steep steps for an hour) all the way to the summit.  On occasions, you have a hole in the rock getting you a whisper of sunlight.

Climibing up in darkness through Dau Go cave.  Hole in the rock gets some sunlight.

Half way through there is a fairly large cavity in the rock (about as big as a 1000 seater auditorium).  The cavity is well lit and offers an awesome display of stalactites and stalagmites.

Dau Go cave: Stalactites and Stalagmites

After the arduous climb, when you reach the summit, you can enjoy a spectacular "bird's eye-view" of the bay.

Spectacular view of Ha Long Bay from summit at end of Dau Go cave

Not all caves have steps carved out of rock, with a hand rail to hold on to, and exploitation of as much of light source as possible.  Dau Go is considered an Auto bahn among the climbing paths in grottos.  There are others where one has to scale the wall from inside (akin to mountaineering in night time).  Buddhist monks do this to set up (and that includes carrying material and building) Buddhist temples at the summit.

One mountain with a Buddhist temple at the top

Some of the mountains have sandy beaches at the base.  Tito island has a popular and fairly large beach.  (The island was named after Marshall Tito of former Yugoslavia when Vietnam had a stronger affiliation to the socialist bloc).

Sandy beach of Tito island after an early morning rain.  Was fun to walk on the wet sand without shoes!

At times, the grottos inside the mountain do not spiral up.  They bore horizontally to the other side providing a thrill ride for boats to go from one side of the rock to the other in utter darkness with the boatman pleading with his passengers to bend down so that the heads do not get scrapped by the low and sharp rocks.

A boat enters one such cave.  And we understood why and how "light at the end of the tunnel" is a symbol of hope and optimism!

A mountain with a tunnel through the rock to the other side

The boat enters the tunnel.  Everyone has to keep heads down to avoid injury to head.

Light at the end of the tunnel!

The interior spaces that you access by passing through the tunnels reward you with even more spectacular view of more Karst mountains.

Karst mountains inside a lake within the bay

People have been living in Ha Long bay for a long while.  The Vietnam government has set up four fishing villages (in the entire 1,553 sq km area) where about 1,600 Vietnamese reside.  Their main source of income?  Catching fish when they are young, growing them in private ponds connected to the sea, and selling them to restaurants in Hanoi (which is about 3 hrs away on a busy day).

Fishing village in Ha Long Bay

And there a few parcels of land that are privately owned for decades by affluent Vietnamese.  Vietnam government has let them continue to own these parcels which often have a luxury second home, a private beach, and a private jetty.  The owners cannot sell to anyone other than the State and cannot use it for any other purpose.  I was reminded of a Mughal emperor's statement about Kashmir: "If there be paradise on earth.......".

Private house, beach, and pier in Ha Long Bay

The best part about the cruise?  Food.  The boat carried minimal provisions and caught sea food in its journey and used whatever it caught to cook the day's fare.  The fish was awesome.  We had more oysters and scallops in the three days than in all our lives before then!  Only the fruits were brought in from mainland.

And the picture windows in our spacious room in the boat.  One did not have to go out at all.  One could see everything within the comfort of one's room in the boat.

The cruise boat was as much a vacation as the bay itself

In parting our captain explained:  Ha Long means "Descending dragons".  When Vietnam was under threat in the long gone past, Gods sent dragons to defend Vietnam and after successfully defending the country, the dragons stayed back and became the Karst mountains.  Today the dragons welcome others.  In peace.

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