The sweat trickled down my back as my heart beat faster. I could feel a dozen pairs of eyes boring into me, watching me; waiting. ‘It’s not even that high up,’ I told myself, ‘you can do it’. And so, I gulped in a huge pocket of air, held my nose as hard as I could and jumped. Seconds later, a roar of water rushed around me. I kicked for the surface and emerged in the calm sunlight. On the horizon, clusters of limestone karst peaks jutted skywards, their forested peaks protruding from the emerald sea. I looked back up at the boat’s sundeck where the next ‘volunteer’ was waiting to jump, the cool waters offering welcome relief from the sticky heat of the midday sun.
Featuring on Wanderlust Travel Magazine’s 100 Greatest Travel Experiences and on the front cover of just about every Asia guidebook going, sailing the green waters of Halong Bay is one of the most popular activities in Vietnam. Indeed, my husband David and I had been in the country less than 24 hours and we were already driving rapidly coastward on the three-hour journey from Hanoi to Halong Bay’s little port.
Boarding the Fantasea
On arrival, we boarded our traditional wooden junk boat, named Fantasea, a two-storey number that slept ten in clean and compact twin cabins. In true Vietnamese style, embarkation was unhurried and hassle free, and we were soon settling into our rooms, unpacking our sunhats and nabbing the best spots on the lovely sundeck on the second floor. Despite Halong Bay’s enduring popularity and the large number of boats in port, once we were sailing I was struck by the peace and quiet of it all, and spent a couple of hours lazing on my deckchair contentedly watching the rocks and islands drift past.
A little while later, we stopped to visit Surprise Cave, so-called because it’s unexpectedly roomy interior took its French discoverers by surprise. Entering the hillside through a narrow tunnel, I certainly wasn’t prepared for the vast cavern of stalactites, stalagmites and crazily-shaped rock formations that opened up in front of us. Our guide told us a few details about the cave’s formation and its discovery in 1901, and then we were free to walk around. For me, the best part was when we emerged from the darkness, our eyes readjusting to the sunshine. A panoramic view over the bay came into focus, its waters glittering like diamonds in the bright sunlight. David and I posed for a photo right there, the large deep green sweep of bay and hazy sky behind us contrasting perfectly with my pink T-shirt. Years later, this photo (shown above) sits proudly on our mantelpiece, a happy reminder of our travels in the Far East.
Kayaking the lagoons
As the shadows grew longer, our captain sailed Fantasea to a sheltered cove and moored her for the night. Surrounded by jagged, needle-like islands, we were kitted out with paddles and lifejackets and hopped into two-person kayaks. Paddling about on the waves was good fun and it wasn’t long before David and I were off exploring, steering our kayak under a low-hanging rock into a sheltered lagoon where, all alone on the calm water, our voices echoed spookily against the sheer rocky walls. Later, as the sky turned from blue to orange, we lay flat on our backs on the sundeck and watched the stars appear, one by one.
For dinner, Fantasea’s brilliant chef whipped up a steaming hot plate of seafood noodles which we devoured hungrily along with a glass or two of chilled wine. Drowsy from the gentle rocking of the boat (and no doubt the wine), we set down to sleep in our cabins, the soft lapping of the waves lulling us into a deep sleep.
Cat Ba Island
The following morning, after a tasty breakfast of fruit, fried eggs and toast, we upped anchor and sailed gently through the islets and peaks to Cat Ba Island. Here we disembarked and explored the jungles of Cat Ba National Park on foot, hiking up one of the mountains with a hyperactive guide who jumped around like a monkey. After two hours walking through the vines and lush greenery in the beating sun, we reached the top, where a rickety old lookout tower greeted us. I was struck with more than a touch of vertigo as we climbed up, but it was worth it for the fabulous view over the island and the forest below.
After lunch, we reboarded Fantasea and sailed across to Monkey Island, so-called because it is home to a troupe of rather cheeky monkeys. We scrambled up a bizarrely shaped and very sharp volcanic rock to get a better view over the beach and the clear blue water spread out in front of us. Before long we were feeling the heat, so our boat captain suggested jumping off Fantasea’s sundeck and cooling off in the bay with a swim.
Cooling off in the water
To me, this sounded like a wonderful idea, but as I stood on the deck, some four metres above the water, it seemed like an awfully long way down. But I plucked up the courage to jump, and once we were all in the water it was wonderfully refreshing. We splashed about for a while before sailing back to Cat Ba Island for dinner, passing many traditional floating villages along the way.
Return to shore
After a second night onboard, we returned to our coveted sundeck spots for the gentle journey back to Halong Bay harbour, a lovely final few hours in the sunshine amidst the picturesque scenery. I greatly appreciated those last few hours of tranquillity and the calm stillness, soon to be replaced by the hustle and bustle of Hanoi’s motorbike-thronged streets.
Cruise the still waters of Halong Bay on a traditional junk boat with Flight Centre’s Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh Journey, one of our many tailor-made holidays to Vietnam.