The driver’s offense: idling in Hanoi city traffic. No officers gave chase, though, and we settled into our seats and set out with a small group on an overnight outing to scenic Ha Long Bay in northeast Vietnam.
Several hours later, after a honking-filled ride along highways chaotic with traffic, through dusty small towns, and past watery rice fields, we got our first look at Ha Long Bay’s dramatic hallmarks—limestone pillars rising from the water and mostly shrouded in mist. We knew we were rolling the dice by coming to this striking spot in December, which is the start of Vietnam’s winter. In fact, several days earlier, severe rain storms had forced tourists back to Hanoi shortly after making the lengthy trip out to Ha Long Bay.
The dramatic seascape is the result of tectonics and water erosion over millions of years, or so scientists might tell you. But there is another, more fanciful explanation for how the nearly two thousand islands dotting Ha Long Bay and its environs came to be. Legend has it they’re the handiwork of a family of dragons, sent by the gods to protect the fledgling country of Vietnam from invaders. Instead of fire, the dragons breathed jewels, pearls, and jade that created the islands and blocked the enemy ships. That day the travel gods sent some goodwill our way. Visibility improved significantly by the time we reached the harbor, where a small wooden skiff ferried us out to our floating hotel, one of dozens of boats anchored in Ha Long (Descending Dragon) Bay. We immediately set sail to see more of this natural wonderland of forested islands, caves, and sea arches. It seemed like every tour boat in the Bay immediately made way for the same spot: Sung Sot (Surprise) Cave. For us this was the only downside of being locked into a pre-arranged schedule. Spending an hour underground, crowded shoulder to shoulder with other visitors in a slow-moving line that snaked its way through an underwhelming cave, seemed like a waste of time when what we really wanted to see was above ground.
The afternoon’s activities also included kayaking, which got us out onto the jade green (and surprisingly warm) waters, and being dazzled by the scenery from the boat’s top deck. When the weather turned chilly and rainy, we headed to the dining room with its panoramic windows to continue taking in the vista. Despite the dozens of boats motoring around the harbor during the day, it was like a different world once evening fell. We spent the night anchored in the islands’ shadows, with lights from only a couple of other tour boats visible in the darkness. After swapping tales and tips with other travelers over a few post-dinner beers (and some off-the-menu homemade whiskey), we threw on our waterproof windbreakers and headed up top for one last look at the sleeping Bay.
Not Just a Tourist Attraction
Sightseeing boats make up the bulk of the traffic in Ha Long Bay, but they’re not the only ones plying the waters. The area lies on a major shipping route, and it’s not uncommon to see giant cargo ships making their way among the islands. But tradition is alive and well here too. The following morning we boarded the skiff for a short ride and then got into an even smaller boat—our favorite part of the entire tour. One of the reasons we chose the trip that we did was because the route included a detour to Bai Tu Long Bay, a lesser-trafficked area just north of Ha Long Bay and home to an unusual town. Vung Vieng is one of four floating villages that have been nestled among the islands for centuries. If not for the fact that it rests on water, it could be a neighborhood anywhere. Small colorful houses sit in rows where laundry was hanging out to dry, neighbors chatted, and dogs and cats lounged around. Locals with bamboo boats awaited our skiff, ready to give us a tour of the area, and we climbed aboard one helmed by an older woman. Any concern we had that she could muster up the strength to row four passengers was quickly laid to rest; she was more than up to the task and left younger rowers in her wake. She got us to a scenic sea arch before nearly every other boat, giving us a clear photo opportunity, and we were the second ones to arrive back at the dock where we set out. Our kindly, kick-ass lady rower made the outing even more memorable. To our surprise (and disgust), we were the only one of the three parties in our boat that tipped her. It’s a shame they couldn’t see the value in the experience and offer her something modest in return. We took her photo midway through our jaunt, and her dazzling smile is one of our best memories of the outing. That and the ingenious boy lounging in a plastic chair while he rowed a bamboo boat with his feet. If You Go: The Ha Long Bay excursion was one of only two activities we pre-booked before arriving in Southeast Asia. (The other was the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand.) We decided to sandwich the side trip in between stays in Hanoi so that we would have a second chance at going if the weather didn’t cooperate. We decided on the Legacy after reading tons of reviews about the various boat options, which range from no-frills to luxury with pricing to match. It seemed clear that you get what you pay for with these trips, which is why we went with a mid-range one. To make things seamless, we then looked for a hotel in Hanoi that would book us rooms on land as well as the Ha Long Bay trip. Our city lodging place was Madame Moon Guesthouse in the old quarter. The Legacy tour was well-managed, the food was average but plentiful, and the room was cute, cozy, and exactly like the pictures we’d seen (plus a hot shower!). Decked out in elegant dark wood-and-crimson décor, the triple level boat will have mystery readers’ imaginations working overtime. The atmospheric setting felt like stepping into the pages of an Agatha Christie caper—especially when the dining room lights went out and a couple disappeared during the blackout. But there was no amateur sleuthing to be done. They later turned up safe and sound.