After a couple of days in Hanoi, I spent a few days exploring the stunning islands of Halong Bay. The bay features almost 2000 limestone karsts and isles in various sizes and formations and is often considered one of the natural wonders of the world.
Halong translates as “where the dragon descends into the sea” and legend claims the islands were created by a great dragon plunging into the sea, filling the area with water, only leaving pinnacles of land visible (another great myth for you!)
But however the rocks were formed, they really do make for breath-taking scenery, and it is no wonder it has now been named a World Heritage Site. Beyond the boat cruise, my tour also included kayaking around some of the bays, where we caught a glimpse of some monkeys and bats; a hike to the highest point where we got stunning views of the bay; a Vietnamese cooking lesson on the boat; and a few hours exploring the Sungsot Cave, one of the largest and most impressive grottoes in Halong Bay.
After one night sleeping on the junk boat (which I highly recommend – there’s something quite relaxing about hearing the calm waters as you go to sleep) we spent the second night in a hotel on Cat Ba – the largest island in Halong Bay.
Cat Ba Island seemed like a pretty laid-back place, the townscape lined by rugged jungle and rocky mounds. As you walk along the water’s edge, you’ll see dozens of ragged wooden junk boats and tiny fishing vessels floating on the still waters of Halong Bay.
On route to our hotel, we stopped by Cat Ba National Park to do another hike up a pretty steep mountain (which I was not prepared for both mentally and physically!). We were told the protected park has many exotic species of animals, including the highly endangered golden headed langur, however spotting them is uncommon, and unfortunately we weren’t one of the lucky ones.
Our guide was an elderly local, who impressively clambered up the rocks in flip flops while chain-smoking cigarettes. He completely put my level of fitness to shame (note to self, must get back to boot camp when I return home!). Even though the last leg of the hike was quite challenging (for me anyway!) when I eventually made it to the top, the views of neverending misty green mountain peaks made it all worthwhile.
After a fun night of partying with some locals on Cat Ba Island, I headed back to Hanoi for a night’s rest before embarking on a day trip to Ninh Binh where I got to visit Hoa Lu – the ancient capital of Vietnam in the 10th and 11th centuries. Ninh Binh is surrounded by mountains of limestone, which is apparently why the Dinh, Le and Ly dynasties chose Ninh Binh for their capital as they provided strong fortress walls against foreign invaders.
Hoa Lu was called “the capital built of stone” once covering an area of 3 sq km, but sadly most of it has been destroyed. It was quite a misty day when I visited, which gave the place a very eery sense and when walking around you could see remnants of the wars as well as a multitude of temples, shrines, and pagodas from years gone by.
After Hoa Lu, we stopped for some lunch where I got to sample some goat, which is a speciality in the region. And you only have to look up at the mountains where many of the animals reside to see why! After lunch I went on a one hour boat trip down the murky waters of the Ngo Dong River to see the Tam Coc limestone caves. Some call it the Halong Bay on land and I can definitely see why – the scenery was amazing (albeit a tad touristy). As we made our way down the river, I soon discovered the locals had learnt a different way of steering the boats – rowing with their feet! She let me have a go myself, but as you can probably imagine that almost resulted in the boat capsizing!
With my inner zen restored, I returned to the hustle and bustle of Hanoi for Christmas, shortly followed by a few days cycling and trekking the idyllic valleys of Mai Chau (but there’ll be more on that later). All in all I have absolutely loved Northern Vietnam so far and felt I got to experience a good mix of Vietnamese history and culture, nature, and modern city life. Now it’s time to do a bit of sun-chasing and head further south!
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