Hạ Long Bay

Thailand celebrated Songkran, the Thai New Year and Water Festival, this past week. Last year, we headed to Hua Hin, a resort about 3 hours southwest of Bangkok, to partake in the festivities. This year, we decided that we would visit Vietnam for a short vacation. It is summer time in Thailand, so we figured that a trip further north would provide a cooler place to spend the holiday.

On Wednesday, we flew from Bangkok (point A on map below) to Hanoi (point B), a journey of about 1,000 km (or 600 miles.) Our flight from Bangkok, however, was delayed for six hours, so it was 9 p.m. by the time that we arrived at our hotel in Hanoi. After a late dinner, we went to sleep so that we could rise early in the morning for a two-day, one-night cruise on Hạ Long Bay (point C).

Hạ Long Bay contains 2,000 islands and islets spread over 600 square miles in the Gulf of Tonkin in the South China Sea. The legend behind the bay is that when Vietnam was young and under attack by foreign invaders, the gods sent a dragon that began spitting out jewels and jade. These stones turned into the islands that formed a protective wall for the nation and upon which the invading ships crashed. In Vietnamese, Hạ Long means Descending Dragon. As a side note, Hanoi’s original name was Thăng Long, which means Ascending Dragon (more about that in the next post.)

In reality, the islands are made of limestone that has been formed over 500 million years by erosion, tectonic shifts, and sea and climate changes. The caves that dot the islands are the result of water that has seeped into cracks and that has eroded the limestone over thousands and thousands of years. UNESCO listed Hạ Long Bay as a World Heritage Site in 1994.

Hạ Long Bay is about 150 km (90 miles) due east from Hanoi, what seemed like it should be a relatively short journey. In the U.S. or Thailand this would be no more than a 90 minute drive, likely less. In Vietnam, however, this trip took four hours, including a half-hour rest stop at a craft shop where we were encouraged to buy souvenirs. The problem is that Vietnam’s infrastructure is still quite poor; the roads are neither very wide nor very smooth.

I do not believe that our van, a Mercedes Sprinter, ever got over 60 kilometers per hour (about 35 MPH) and much of the trip was between 20 and 25 MPH. Now this does not mean it wasn’t a white-knuckle ride. The roads are typically two lanes in each direction, however, these lanes are shared by trucks, buses, cars, motorcycles, bicycles and rickshaws. Since motorcycles and bicycles were typically, but not always, in the right lane, there was generally one lane (or maybe one and one-half lanes) in which the larger vehicles could maneuver. Many drivers straddled the two lanes, since they could then avoid the bicycles and motorcycles on the right. In order to pass slower trucks, buses, and cars, there seemed to be a de facto passing lane that was made up of the left sides of both left lanes.

At times it seemed like a finely choreographed dance as drivers of the various vehicles moved left and right on the roads. In order to signal their presence and intent to others on the road, the drivers continually blew their horns. One fellow explained to us that you can drive in Vietnam without brakes, but you cannot drive without a horn. There seems to be a lot of truth in that statement. Compared to Vietnam, the drivers in Thailand seem docile and civilized.

We chose to sail on the Paradise Luxury, a ship with 17 cabins and about 30-35 passengers that is managed by Paradise Cruises. We arrived at the dock (point A on the satellite image below) a bit after noon and we were on-board and sailing by 12:45 p.m. The cruise began with a Vietnamese lunch in the ship’s dining room as the boat cruised into the bay. While I did not expect to be alone on Hạ Long Bay, I was astounded by the large number of other cruise ships that were on the bay. At times, it felt like we were in a procession.

Paradise Luxury cruise ship

The balcony off our room

Limestone islands in Hạ Long Bay

Island with cruise ship for perspective

Another island in Hạ Long Bay

Kissing (or fighting) cocks

Life on Hạ Long Bay

Work ships on Hạ Long Bay

Barge on Hạ Long Bay

Fishermen on Hạ Long Bay

Floating village on Hạ Long Bay

Manually propelled boat on Hạ Long Bay

Our first excursion was an hour or so after lunch. We took a tender from the ship to Surprise Cave (Hang Sung Sôt, point B on the image above.) We climbed 50 or so steep stairs cut into the stone through the foliage to reach the mouth of this grotto that is 80 feet above sea level. From the entrance, we descended a winding stairway into the first chamber that is called the waiting room. Artificial lighting filled this large chamber with many colors that highlight the natural beauty. In one of the alcoves, there was a pool of fresh clean water that shimmered in the light.

Entrance to Hang Sung Sôt

Stalactites and a pool of fresh water

A narrow passageway leads from the first chamber into the second. The second chamber has natural light that filters in from some openings high above. Together, the two large chambers span 2.5 acres and each has a 100 foot tall ceiling. Thousands of stalactites (hang from the ceiling) and stalagmites (grow from the floor) fill the two chambers. Our guide, a young Vietnamese woman, pointed out many formations that resembled dragons, monkeys, elephants, people kissing, Buddha, and a cannon or large gun (see pictures below.)

Natural light filtering in from above

Close up of cave ceiling

Cannon ready to shoot

Dragon on the ceiling

Inside Hang Sung Sôt

The large chamber in Hang Sung Sôt

We took the tender back to the ship and then sailed for about 30 minutes until we approached Ti Top island (point C on the image above.) After another short tender ride, we were on this island that has the only sand beach in this archipelago. Ti Top was named after German Titov, a Russian cosmonaut who piloted the Vostok 2 in August 1961. In November 1962, Titov and Ho Chi Minh visited this island, and Ho named it in Titov’s honor. We spent an hour or so on the beach. There were a couple hundred people on the beach and several were swimming. Many of those who took the plunge were, I think, Russians so the water must have felt pretty warm to them. Personally, I need around 80°F, easily found in Thailand but not in Hạ Long Bay in April.

We returned to the ship and had about 15 minutes to clean up and change clothes before a cooking lesson. The ship’s chef gave a hands-on demonstration on how to make Vietnamese spring rolls — “arroi mak mak” as we would proclaim here in Thailand! For the intrepid folks at home, the recipe is as follows:

Ingredients for the filling:

    • 500 grams (just over 1 pound) lean minced pork (can also use chicken or prawns if you prefer)
    • 150 grams (about 5 ounces) shredded carrot
    • 50 grams (about 2 ounces) diced onion
    • 30 grams (about 1 ounce) diced scallion
    • 30 grams (about 1 ounce) diced shallot
    • 50 grams (about 2 ounces) vermicelli (broken into small pieces)
    • 30 grams (about 1 ounce) diced mushrooms
    • 30 grams (about 1 ounce) thin sliced fungus (soak the dried fungus in water until soft, discard the middle if hard
    • Two egg yolks (save the whites)
    • 20 grams (about 0.7 ounces) diced garlic
    • 50 grams (about 2 ounces) diced cilantro
    • 20 millilitres (2/3s of an ounce) of fish sauce
    • Salt and pepper to taste

Other ingredients:

    • Rice paper (30-50 sheets)
    • Egg whites

1. Mix all filling ingredients in a large bowl
2. Dampen a cloth
3. Put rice paper on damp cloth to soften (make sure to dampen both sides)
4. Paint egg whites on to the rice paper
5. Spoon filling in a straight line onto the rice paper about one inch from the edge nearest you
6. Fold edge of rice paper over the filling — be sure to cover entire filling
7. Roll tightly, tucking in the edges of the rice paper as you approach the center, until you reach the end of the paper
8. Put in hot oil and cook for about 5 minutes turning frequently until golden brown
9. Eat and enjoy!

Our chef used chopsticks to move the spring rolls as they were frying; alas, this is a skill I do not yet have.

Chef and guide give cooking demonstration

Cook with chopsticks while enjoying rice wine

After the cooking lesson, we had an hour to relax before dinner. Dinner featured a barbecue with prawns, shrimp, chicken, pork, oysters, mussels, and squid in addition to salads, soup, other entrées, fried rice, and other side dishes.

Ships anchor for the night on Hạ Long Bay

Night descends on Hạ Long Bay

Indochine (1992)

A 9 p.m., the movie Indochine was shown. Catherine Deneuve stars in this film about the coming end to French rule in Indochina. Much of the movie was filmed in Hạ Long Bay, so it was a fitting way to end a marvelous day. The movie provided an historical perspective on the people of Vietnam and their interaction with their colonial rulers. A very good movie with only one drawback — the movie is in French so you need to read the subtitles. The movie is almost two and one-half hours long and only eight of us made it to the end.

After a relatively short night’s rest, we were having coffee at 7 a.m. so that we could get back on the tender at 7:30 a.m. for our final side trip. The tender took us to a platform outside Luon Cave (point D on the satellite image above) where we transferred to a rowboat since power boats are not allowed in the cave. The rowboats can carry up to 16 people and they are propelled by a single oarsman. The cave is really an arched entryway that is only about 12-15 feet tall. Once we were through the cave entrance, we were in the middle of a round lagoon surrounded by high cliffs with the sky as the ceiling. This lakeside setting is home to 60-100 rhesus monkeys that are a major tourist draw.

Rowers taking tourists into Luon Cave

Luon Cave -- entrance to the lagoon

Kayakers on lagoon inside Luon Cave

Rhesus monkey on the lagoon's cliff

Two rhesus monkeys watching the tourists

Two rhesus monkeys climbing the cliff

By 9 a.m. we were back on board the ship enjoying a hearty breakfast followed by some time on the sundeck as the ship headed back to port. The ship docked at 11 a.m. and then we endured a four-hour, horn filled, bumpy ride back to Hanoi.

Happy Songkran!

Kop Khun Krab.

© 2012 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.

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2 Responses to Hạ Long Bay

  1. Ana says:

    Ah, Ha Long Bay – thanks for the post. Makes me remember the time I spent in Vietnam about 10 years ago. I loved it; it was quite an experience! Great pictures and narrative! Hope you and Theresa are doing well.

  2. Frank says:

    Interesting. I’ve never heard of this spot. The traveling sounds grueling.

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