If you type ‘Vietnam’ into Google image search, you’ll find the first page filled almost entirely with images of Halong Bay. It’s an UNESCO World Heritage Site made up of thousands of limestone isles formed over 500 million years with warm emerald lagoons, caves and fishing villages.
My new American friend and I booked a 3 day/2 night cruise there a few days after arriving in Hanoi with 14 other strangers from our hostel. After a four hour bus ride to the bay, we went through the familiar transportation shuffle of waiting at a station, boarding a small boat, boarding a large boat, boarding the boat again, hopping on another bus, to another small boat to the big boat, rinse and repeat. Traveling between destinations is a complicated and often confusing process here… but it’s part of the backpacking life—always an adventure, and always worth it when you arrive.
Still coming down from the high of Hanoi, I wasn’t in the best of spirits but tried to remain optimistic and take in the glory of what I was witnessing.
The first day in Halong bay
It was beautiful, indeed, but my expectations were quite high after hearing others’ raving reviews and being bombarded with National Geographic worthy photos. So basically, it was exactly what it was supposed to look like, no surprises.
I like surprises though, and I’ve found that the less I know about a place beforehand, the more enjoyable the experience is. Less expectations means less disappointment… one of the keys to happiness in my book.
The seventeen of us set sail in the afternoon, docking in a harbor to explore Thien Cung cave—a 10,000 sq meter cavern with colorfully lit stalactite formations, pools and dramatic pockets of light.
I had heard nothing of this cave prior to entering and didn’t know it would be a stop on the tour, therefore it was one of the highlights of the trip.
We continued on our boat, navigating through the famous towering cliffs, passing other tour boats along the way.
Before sunset we docked in a harbor just outside of Cat Ba island where I devoured entirely too much of the tastiest food I’ve had in weeks and kayaked into the bay with my American friend.
The sun was a giant glowing pink sphere and I had anticipated a spectacular sunset, but there’s a constant thick haze in the atmosphere here that does strange things to the sky. Instead of making a dramatic exit behind the mountains, we watched as the ball of light simply faded away as if it were on a dimmer switch, and the sky remained a desaturated beige hue until slowly turning into darkness.
I wasn’t up early enough to witness the sunrise, but was told it was equally as unremarkable. I guess you can only expect so much magnificence from one place.
The second day in Halong bay
The next day we took off for our own private island called Freedom Beach, cruising past fishing villages on the way. The locals here live on these floating makeshift tiny houses, catching fish all day to make ends meet and rarely leaving their home. Generations of families who know no other way to live—can you imagine if this was your life?
We cruised past the South China Sea inlet, past kayakers and towering cliffs, where a few brave members of our crew worked up the courage to jump.
Finally we arrived at our private beach and I felt like I paid way too little to have the privilege of staying here.
My energy level had been down since leaving Hanoi—a melancholic state now taking over my body in the form of a minor head cold—and all I wanted to do was rest. I climbed into a hammock and wrote my Hanoi post while the rest of the group did what young twenty-somethings on holiday in paradise ought to do. Drinking and selfies.
I was hoping this trip would be a detox for me, where I could take in the magnificence of this natural wonder after a few days of stimulating city life and non-stop action, but I probably shouldn’t have overlooked the fact that this was a party cruise. For this first time in Asia I felt out of place as a thirty year old backpacker. Getting old sucks.
We took a walk around the coastline of the island, stopping to play with hermit crabs and float in the clear green bathwater lagoon. The setting was that of a fairy tale romance novel and I couldn’t help but think of how blissfully romantic it would be, alone with the right person. Maybe someday I can find that person and enjoy Halong Bay the way it was meant to be enjoyed.
But for now, I’m more than happy cruising through life on my own terms, going wherever the wind takes me, even if I fall to the ground with no one to help me up. I’ll be that much stronger for it when the right person does come along.
And until I return someday, I’ll remember Halong Bay with equal parts beauty and melancholy, reflected in the ghostly silhouettes of isles that dot the horizon. A place where there is no sunrise or sunset, just darkness and light.
It has been a few days since leaving Halong Bay, and after visiting a place even more breathtaking—a town by the name of Sapa—my outlook on life has been restored and I’m ready to take on the rest of Vietnam. Sapa is worthy of its own post, which will be up as soon as I sort through the hundreds of photos captured. Get ready for some serious eye candy coming your way…