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Friday, 20 January 2012

Halong Bay - Life on the Water

We have been trying to find the words to convey the experience of driving in Vietnam. Our trip to Halong Bay from Hanoi was about 170 k and took about 3.5 hours. Getting out of the city took at least 45 minutes in a sea of motorcycles, bicycles, cars and trucks. If the official road is 4 lanes, 2 in each direction, what you actually see is vehicles occupying 8 lanes and while most traffic stays in the right direction there are always several motorbikes that swim upstream. There is constant honking as drivers alert others to their presence as they muscle through to beat out the other guy. As a passenger it is both surreal and somewhat frightening. Monica has taken to covering her eyes. Oh, and there are the pedestrians, often little children running aside and across the road. A local driver told us that driving is easy if you imagine you are swimming in a river.

Halong Bay is an Unesco Heritage site. It is over 1000 sq kilometers and has a haunting beauty. It feels like we have gone back in time. There are over 1000 islands, mostly uninhabited and many people earn a living through fishing and various types of "sea farming", including cultivating oysters for pearls. They also ship large quantities of coal out to China.

We arrived in Halong Bay and boarded the Dragon Pearl, a wonderful "junk", which was actually a very solid boat with 11 rooms. Each room was like a luxury hotel with a large bed and our own bathroom with shower. The room also came with life preservers and a hammer to break the window in the event we were sinking. Our room was at the very back of the boat and our window provided exciting views of the ocean and many islands.

The food on this 24 hour excursion was certainly the best so far in Vietnam. Amazing service and seafood so fresh it jumped up and tried to bite us. We were also delighted to find instant companions in an Algerian-Chilean couple from Paris. We hope to see them again some time.

On the first day the weather did not look promising, but as we arrived at our first destination - a beach and cave to explore - the sky turned blue and the sun warmed us quickly. The caves used to house many fisherman, but are now just for the pleasure of tourists. We also kayaked around the islands and managed to soak ourselves to the bone. Good thing it was warm.

We slept well, rocked to sleep. The next morning breakfast was at 7 followed by a visit to a floating fishing village which was established by the government around 1995 so that the fishermen could have communities with more amenities and also can be more easily evacuated in times of typhoons. The pictures show life in this incredible environment. Kids learn to swim before they can walk and we saw 6 year olds rowing boats and tying them up as they went to the floating school.

Best of all our tour company went to an out of the way location so none of this was excessively touristy and there were only 2 others small boats there with us.

On the trip back to Hanoi we indulged our driver and stopped several times at large tourist traps designed to sell local silk and ceramics and other crafts. Each stop had exactly the same wares. BUT it is Tet (New Year) and each time the driver stopped he was given a case of beer or coke, which were clearly important to him. We didn't mind the stops - after all he kept us alive on the crazy roads. At least he didn't ask to stop at the many "dog" street restaurants along the road.


  1. Wow, looks swell. And glad to see you've picked up a pet dog, too. Hope she's not too long in quarantine upon your return to NA! Also, can't wait to see some of these frames in full resolution--you really seem to have hit your stride in your documentary photography~

  2. We're going here. Thanks for the sneak preview!