Halong Bay is the main reason... possibly the only reason... I wanted to visit Vietnam. The boat we went on was a nice though not fancy wooden junk. There were masts but no sails attached. It had an engine. The weather was cloudy as it has been for a while but we could see the sun behind the clouds trying to burn its way through. The boat set off from the harbor. We passed the beaches we'd been to the previous day and then went by a floating village. The boat stopped at a floating kayak depot and got 6 kayaks which it towed behind.
The landscape was beautiful. The water was somewhere between olive and malachite. The limestone islands rose resembling ships, animals, or haunted castles. Sometimes we'd see birds swoop to the water but more often we heard their calls from the trees on the islands. There was a thin layer of mist... not a mysterious mist... more of a visibility impeding haze. But even with their shapes a little blurred, the islands were beautiful. Sometimes we'd see a tiny, empty beach. In other places the water had tunneled through the rocks making arches. In some places the arches had fallen leaving an open channel into a lagoon.
Precarious rock island
Islands in the bay
The boat stopped in a sheltered area where the water was smooth and shallow. There we boarded our kayaks. Rowshan and I had the only one with life jackets (for sitting on). It also had a lot of water which we had the guide bail out. We speculated the life jackets came with it because it was deemed most likely to sink. We glided off to explore the lagoons. We paddled through limestone tunnels into quiet lagoons with rock walls covered with plants rising up from them. In some places we could see colorful corals. Fish sometimes leaped from the water. This was the most pleasant part of the journey and brought us a little closer to my dream of Halong: drifting alone in a small boat among the islands in silence and peace. It is a place that has that siren call to lose yourself there. Disappear... escape from humanity.... There were only a couple lagoons so we didn't get lost.
A tunnel between lagoons
Kayaking in a lagoon
Having fun kayaking
Then something really unexpected happened. The sun came out and the sky, though hazy, showed blue. To reach the second lagoon we paddled through a cavern with limestone stalactites hanging from the roof and interesting coral below the water. There was a bit of a current out of the lagoon which we had to fight against to get in. Once inside we paddled around and found a spring. Since we were the only ones in our group left in the lagoon, we figured we had better go back.
An elusive blue sky
We were the last ones back. I had asked the guide how long we had and he replied, “As long as you want”. I figured this wasn't quite true because I would have loved to have just paddled off and gotten lost among these beautiful, harsh islands. This probably would mean starving to death though... So we returned to the boat just in time for lunch: delicious spring rolls, garlic and greens, a calamari vegetable and pineapple dish, rice, and fried fish served with rice and cucumbers.
The next stop was Surprise Cave. We walked through what proved to be a rather large cave filled with interesting limestone formations and lots of penguin/dolphin garbage cans. A concrete walkway led through the cavern where the rock formations were lit up with colored lights, up to a viewing deck at an opening in the top of the cave. The view was beautiful. We could see the bay was a popular stop for tourist boats and there were lots of wooden junks anchored.
Stalactites in Surprise Cave
Inside the cave
View from the Surprise Cave
A junk with sails unfurled
From there we turned back. We went back the same way we came and almost lost a kayak. It came unhitched and the boat had to turn around and fetch it. However, the view was altered by the appearance of the sun and the blue sky.
Blue sky and islands in Lan Ha Bay
We stopped at Monkey Island but couldn't get a boat to go ashore. We were able to see a couple monkeys on the roof of one of the buildings. Aside from that Monkey Island didn't look too interesting. Just a beach. Our guide suggested that instead we could visit a fish farm in the floating village and see big fish.
Not having much of a choice we agreed. The floating village was picturesque. Most of the houses seemed to have fish farms. These were planks of wood on floats which marked off square pens (and served as walkways). Nets were attached to the planks making pens for fish. The fish farm we looked at really did have some interesting fish. I don't know there names but there were some spotted ones and some big rather mean looking ones. They also had crabs and flat shrimp.
Feeding the fish
However, the coolest inhabitants were the cuttlefish. I like cuttlefish. I've always thought they looked strangely wise but also cute. I don't think I'd seen such big ones and definitely not in an open environment. They flickered their incandescent fringes ruffling their spots of electric blue. Then one rose up and grabbed another with his/her tentacles and the two began sucking face. I swear one of them turned a lighter color. The two glided around like that and one of the French girls went into rapture about it, “Amor! Ils embrasant! C'est magnificent! Regarde!” I thought it was pretty cool myself. Cuttlefish cuddling!
We left the cuttlefish and headed back to town. The sun was beginning to set over the islands and filled the water with gold sparkles. Rowshan and I went to our hotel room and found it really did have a sunset view. Through the haze the sun was the red of an angry eye but beautiful nonetheless.