Halong Bay, which means “descending dragon” is the number 1 destination for tourists visiting Vietnam. If you recall the ending of the movie Bourne Legacy: Jeremy Renner and Rachel Weisz are sailing through Halong Bay as Moby’s Extreme Ways plays in the background – quite a memorable scene. But after doing some research we discovered that this UNESCO World Heritage site is quite controversial….
The emerald water is breathtaking as the sun shines on more than 1,600 islets in the glistening bay. These limestone karsts were formed 500 million years ago, shaped by downpours, and topped by thick jungle growth. Many of these tiny islands have caves within them and some of the larger islands even have lakes.
Although there are ferries that can cheaply take you to some of the larger and more popular islands like Cat Ba, it was recommended that we board a small cruise ship to spend a couple of nights in the center of the bay were 775 islets are packed within a 129 square mile area.
We chose the Ancora Cruise for 3 days and 2 nights. They picked us up in Hanoi for the 3.5 hour drive to the Bay. Boarding the boat at noon we were eating a delicious vegan lunch by 1 pm. The crew really did go out of their way to accommodate my dietary requirements. Each one of the 22 posh rooms on board had a large balcony and the view was spectacular.
By 3 pm we were taking a smaller boat to see a huge cave called Sung Sot (Surprise Grotto). The French were surprised to find it on Bo Hon Island in 1938 – hence the name. We also took a bamboo boat into and inside the water filled Luon Cave while watching monkeys frolic in the jungle above.
As we were getting ready for dinner, lounging on the balcony, a small bamboo row boat appeared from no where. Inside was a lady selling beer, wine, chips and other sundry items to cruise ship patrons. We later learned that these folks live on bamboo rafts making up floating fishing villages in coves of Halong Bay. Not a simple life.
On the second day Tai Chi was led by an instructor on the top deck at 6 am followed by a delicious breakfast. We were then taken by a smaller boat to a day boat on which we spent the majority of the day. Unfortunately the weather had turned quite cloudy but it was still reasonably warm.
We were taken to Ho Dong Tien Cave (Fairy Lake Cave) which has a lake in the middle known for it’s mythical powers. Our guide took us through many narrow entrances (where we had to get on all fours to climb through). Shinning our mobile phones shimmering stalactites would come into full view – otherwise the cave was pitch black. Our friend who is over 6 feet tall had quite a time crawling through some of these tunnels!
At this point we had understood the reason why Halong Bay is quite a controversial place to visit. From the deck of the boat the water looks emerald green and the view is spectacular. As we got closer to the water level we realized the amount of garbage floating in it (and I am sure below it). The influx of tourism certainly does not help.
After Fairy Lake Cave we were taken to another inlet to kayak. Although kayaking is something that I enjoy, I was dreading getting close to the water. We were instructed to kayak around the inlet and enter a small beach from where we would see another cave and be able to climb up to see a view of a beautiful islet. All I could see was garbage. So incredibly sad.
With the prices of cruises being quite substantial (and Halong Bay is governed by the Vietnamese Communist government) there has to be a way for them to preserve the beauty of this national treasure – otherwise no one is going to want to visit. As a tourist I am willing to pay an additional tax so that a clean up of the water can be initiated.
The rest of the cruise was a bit of a blur for me as I developed cellulitis on my face – this is a pretty serious bacterial infection which I probably received from an insect bite somewhere in the Bay.
Halong Bay is stunning but it could be so much more beautiful if it were cleaned up. Until that is done, I cannot in good consciousness recommend it.