As we boarded the tour bus, our tour guide began his narration using terms like “dragon”, “king”, “enemies from the north”…resonating a plot of Game of Thrones. What he was narrating, was the mythical story about Ha Long Bay – the natural wonder of the world. In Vietnamese, it is called Vinh Ha Long, which means “Where the dragon descends to the sea”.
Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a popular travel destination in Quang Ninh Province, Vietnam. Thousands of limestone karsts and isles in various shapes and sizes is the reason for its tourist attraction. The limestone in this bay has gone through 500 million years of formation in different conditions and environments. The evolution of the karst in this bay has taken 20 million years under the impact of the tropical wet climate. The geo-diversity of the environment in the area has created biodiversity, including a tropical evergreen bio-system, oceanic and sea shore bio-system (source – Wikipedia).
Reaching Ha Long Bay
It’s a three-hour drive from Hanoi city to the Ha Long Bay harbor. There are umpteen options of travel companies organizing these tours, including pick-up and drop facility from your hotel at Hanoi (where we stayed), lunch on the cruise and a professional guided tour.
We reached the harbor around noon and boarded a small cruise that took us around Ha Long Bay. Hot Vietnamese lunch was served in the cruise, while it slowly made its way deep in the bay. It was the month of February — winter season for Hanoi. Chilly winds and fog was settling in Ha Long Bay that added to the beauty of this natural wonder. Slowly, we could see silhouettes of karsts (rock topography formed from dissolution of soluble limestone, dolomite) coming closer to us amidst the unruffled mist. From a distance, the mountain peaks were making a cull and curve pattern with beautiful reflections on the emerald green waters like a dragon in the sea.
The sight from the open deck of the cruise was even spectacular, with endless view of the rainforest capped karsts. We could also spot the animal shaped tiny isles, which resembled a King Kong in a seating posture, a dog and two fighting roosters!
There is a beautiful spot in the middle of the waters, where you can enjoy kayaking or hire a bamboo boat to get closer to these gigantic limestone karsts. Eagles and hawks swirling over is the only sight of life here…squeaking of these birds and splashing of water from the oar is the lone sound that you could hear…rest is just you and nature.
Hang Dau Go Grotto
Our last cruise halt was a naturally formed grotto called Hang Dau Go. It is the largest grotto of Ha Long Bay consisting of numerous stalactites and stalagmites. As you step inside this grotto through a small opening, which possibly can allow only one person to enter, you are awestruck with the sight inside. You are surrounded by sparkling stalactites and stalagmites; a proof of how miraculous is nature! Inside this grotto, your tour guide will show you more animal shapes and also the face of Santa Claus.
From the grotto, we stepped into our cruise to hit back the harbour. Thus ended our journey to Ha Long Bay, however, we were excited for our next day trip to Ninh Binh province, which is also called Ha Long Bay on land.
It’s a two hour journey from Hanoi city to Ninh Binh and the drive gets beautiful as you get closer to the Province. It’s the country side of Vietnam, where you notice ‘non-la’ (traditional conical hat) clad farmers busy ploughing their farms. Our first stop was at the Bai Dinh Pagoda, which currently holds the record for having the tallest Buddha Statue weighing close to 100 tons, as well as the record of being the largest pagoda in South East Asia. After a trek of about 5 kms, we reached the main gate of Bai Dinh Pagoda. It took us two hours to complete the tour and it was the most spiritual experience.
From a dedicated pagoda for the statue of the ‘original’ Indian Buddha posture to a pagoda for the Lady Buddha, which is a huge statue with thousands of eyes and hands — this place also displays hundreds of stone statues of Buddha in different seating postures and moods. These stone statues stay lined up in a corridor with a wall background embedded with other thousands of brass statues of Buddha.
The architecture of Bai Dinh Pagoda is exemplary. The wood work, stone work and brass work flawlessly executed in the middle of the mountain is noteworthy. The aura inside each of these pagodas will compel you to stay calm and sense the positive vibrations.
From this spiritual tour, we then left for a small pier to board bamboo boats to experience Ha Long Bay on land. Personally, we enjoyed Ning Binh more than Ha Long Bay, because it was adventurous and less touristy. We passed through many tiny caves while boat riding, dodging our heads to avoid hitting the stalactites. It was both scary and fun.
Another exciting reason to enjoy this place was, the famous Hollywood movie Kong: the Skull Island was shot here. A replica of the portion of the movie set with thatched roof huts and tribal people is created on a small part of the isle as a photo opportunity. So you can alight from the boat and click pictures with these tribal people, while you go around this dummy set.
These were the lasting impressions of our tour to Ha Long Bay and Ninh Binh. The ‘we’ in this article includes me and my husband, our son and my mother-in-law. From a mini bus, to a cruise, to a bamboo boat and finally on foot, indeed sounds exhausting, but both the tours were comfortable – even for the 7-year-old and the 63-year-old.
Travel tips for Ha Long Bay
If you like winters, then January and February are good months to visit these provinces, but please do check the dates for the famous Tet festival i.e. the Lunar New Year, when the country comes to a stand still for a week. We visited just three days prior to the festival, so didn’t face any issue, but enjoyed the festive prep. April (spring) or September (Fall) to November, are the best months to visit Hanoi, if you cannot stand the cold weather. But it is fine to visit Halong Bay all year around. Some travel tips:
- You will be staying in Hanoi city, so be prepared for the chaotic traffic
- Hanoi is polluted, so please carry nose masks
- Understand the currency well, it gets difficult to identify with ‘million’ and ‘billion’ and handle bunch of paper notes. Especially, if you are coming from economies dealing in coins such as ‘cents’ or ‘paise’ for that matter
- Uber and Grab works well or look for Hanoi city taxis to avoid getting overcharged by bogus taxis. Another option is to request your Hotel to book a cab for you
- Language is an issue. Very few people can speak English, so a guided tour is the best option.
I personally feel that travelers should explore countries like Vietnam. Because firstly, it’s still rich in culture and biodiversity and secondly, poverty is still a big concern, which can be addressed by tourism.