The drive from Hanoi to Halong Bay took nearly four hours along mostly flat terrain dotted with rice paddies and criss-crossed by rivers.  After getting through the outskirts of Hanoi, the road converted to a one-laner, in theory, but in practice it felt like a multi-lane speedway game of chicken, with the numerous minivans hauling tourists to Halong Bay urgently laying on their horns and forcing every vehicle (man and machine-powered) to veer out of the way.  The concept of “passing distance” took on an entirely different meaning and I was thankful that our driver was cautious by Vietnamese standards.  As in Thailand, it was common to see families of four astride mopeds (the younger children often sleeping soundly despite the bleeping horns around them), or three students sharing a single bike.   Most of the children in the several towns we rode through pedaled alongside the busy road, decked out in blue and white track suits, some barely older than Zara.

As we approached the coast, the landscape rose up dramatically and we were provided our first glimpse of the limestone karsts that populate the entire bay.  We had booked a 3-day, 2-night excursion on the Prince III, a four cabin junk operated by Indochina Junk, which would take us to the less populated Bai Tu Long Bay also within the UNESCO World Heritage Site.  As we met our guide, Tony, and boarded the Prince III, the clouds hung low and heavy and a cold front from the north had lowered temps dramatically and made the Hanoi heat of two days before a distant memory.  If anything, however, the swirling mist and damp air added to the atmosphere as we soaked in our first impressions of Halong Bay and the striking islands emerging from the sea all around us.

Upon boarding the boat, we found a cozy, wood-paneled cabin, with two large oval shaped windows that offered us an unobstructed view of the bay from our bed.  That first night, as I stared out the window unable to sleep, the dark shadows of the karst towers looked ominously beautiful.  The boat’s deck was furnished with lounge chairs for doing what is best done in Halong Bay–admiring the astonishing landscape in every direction.

After a couple of hours of sailing that first afternoon, we set anchor for the evening and it didn’t take Jonathan long to be the first to suggest jumping into the bay.  Besides 4-5 other tour boats, the only other activity in our section of the bay involved the small fishing boats owned by local fisherman who make their living on these waters.  On the second day, we had the opportunity to visit a local floating fishing village comprised of about 30 families who (until the village’s founding in 1982) had lived on their boats.

The rest of our time, we kayaked the warm waters, swam, ate and ate and ate (as evidenced by the 8-course beach barbecue), toured a cave, played cards on deck and, mostly just sat on deck mesmerized by the beauty surrounding us.

The photos from my IPhone camera don’t do it justice (although they provide compelling evidence to Santa that I could use a DSLR delivered to Yorkshire).  Bai Tu Long Bay truly felt like the land that time forgot and in today’s world, that is an increasingly rare gift.  I think it be the highlight of our journey so far.  Go see it if you get a chance.  You won’t regret it.

Soaking in the view

View from cabin bed

View from cabin bed

Captain Z

Captain Z

About to jump

About to jump

Man overboard

Man overboard

J&Zwithhats
On deck of junk

On deck of junk

Our cabin

Our cabin

The land that time forgot

The land that time forgot

Snuggledincabin

Cave exploring

Cave exploring

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