When you come from a landlocked country, Halong Bay is more than just a wonder of the world, it’s heaven on earth, written by Phoonsab Thevongsa
As a youngster growing up Vientiane, whenever I heard the words “Halong Bay”I pictured rustic junks floating on emerald green seas and surrounded by jagged limestone stacks. I longed to one day make it to see this fabled destination with my own eyes and dive into the inviting waters.
Since arriving in Hanoi a few months ago, I have been patiently waiting for an opportunity to present itself. One of the first thing people in Hanoi seem to ask is if you have visited Halong Bay yet. It would almost seem sacrilegious to come to this region of Vietnam and not go to Halong – one of the few places in Vietnam that is recognised around the world thanks to its staggering and distinctive beauty.
So with some free time coming my way, I decide to purchase a ticket for a group tour in Hanoi. That way I would not have to worry about my lack of Vietnamese language and inexperience at solo travel.
Jumping on a bus in the morning, I’m told that by lunchtime I will see the limestone peaks jutting out of the sea. Sure enough four hours later, we arrive in Halong City and the majesty of this UNESCO-protected World Heritage Site unfolds before my astonished landlocked-Laotian eyes.
As I wait to board the boat, I look around to see a harbour filled with tourists from all around the world, all eager to get a closer look at the stunning karst topography.
According to our tour guide, Hue, the best time to visit is between October and April when the weather is more pleasant. Right now, we are in the midst of summer, the temperature can be extremely high and the sun scorching hot. Like everyone else I have my sunhat and sun cream on the ready.
After we enjoy lunch on board the boat, we shuffle up to the top deck and enjoy the fresh air and awe-inspiring scenery as the boat heads towards Sung Sot cave, the largest cave in the bay. It’s like a museum for sculpture inside. Our guide points out some of the more intriguing formations which have been slowly carved out by the forces of nature over thousands of years. The cave also offers us some respite from the sweltering heat – some of the group are reluctant to re-emerge into the sunlight!
But we’re coaxed back onto the boat and after continuing to voyage around amongst the islets we disembark for a spot of kayaking on the choppy waters. This was a new experience for me, as I had only ever rowed down a gently flowing river. Despite being afraid I would capsize, I overcame my fears and safely navigated my way to the some houseboats. The marine culture of Halong bay is quite interesting for me – people live on the water and make a living from fishing. I wonder what would they make of my country, so far from the sea?
We take a rest on a small islet where there is a lovely little cove. Everyone is keen to swim around and cool off. After chilling out on the beach, we return to our boat for a quick shower before dinner was served. After that we watch the sunset from the top deck and enjoy a drink as the temperature drops before night falls.
The next morning, the braver souls on board decide to take another swim before breakfast, only this time by diving of from the top deck of the three-tiered boat. At first I think I will only watch. But then I think of how when I return to Laos, I will show my friends the pictures of the emerald coloured sea and people diving in and they will inevitably ask did I also dive in.
It takes a long time, but eventually, I summon the courage, step forward and plunge into the sea, a lifelong dream realised.