Halong bay - Offshore paradise

Spending a couple of days floating on the waters of Halong Bay is always an unforgettable experience for Duc Hanh

I arrive in Halong at noon. The sun is high in the sky and burning bright. On the pier countless wooden junks, sailboats, speedboats and tiny bamboo boats bob in the water expectantly as tourists arrive from Hanoi in vans, cars and buses. Personally after a four-hour-stint on the road, I’m dying to get out the water and feel the sea breeze running through my air. I presume as normal with Halong tours we’ll be left “sitting on the dock of the bay” for the best part of an hour, but almost instantly a speed-boat arrives with a flourish and as soon as we pile on board we’re zooming towards our large and handsome junk, the Indochina Sails, which the captain proudly announces is 44m?long and 8.5m?wide – and indeed it seems a fine, seaworthy vessel to me!

In my time I’ve been on board a few of the bay’s shabbier junks. It is one point worth making: when it comes to visiting Halong Bay don’t go for the budget trips! Thankfully there are more than a few classy junks to choose from these days that are also reasonably priced.

On board the Indochina Sails, there’s a restaurant, a bar, a massage room, a gift shop and even a library. Guests can also avail of binoculars, snorkelling equipment or top-of-the-line Canadian made kayaks. As we set off into the bay, I make use of the binoculars and survey the glorious setting all around us.

A trip to Halong is first and foremost about relaxing so within minutes every single passenger arrives on deck to sip drinks in the sunshine while basking at the brilliance of bay. Sun-shy, I stretch out on a lie-low on the more shaded lower deck and listen to the the sound of the boat chopping through the waves. As time slowly passes, I happily doze off in the salty air.

Eventually a call for lunch stirs me from my light slumber. A Vietnamese five-course lunch is devoured by the hungry guests even though we’ve hardly worked up an appetite. Afterwards, we drop anchor by Ti Top Island. The tiny island takes its name from the cosmonaut Ghermann Titop of the former Soviet Union, who came here on a trip with President Ho Chi Minh in 1962.

To mark the significance of their visit, Uncle Ho named it Ti Top Island. Thirty-five years later, in 1997, Ti Top returned. Deeply moved, he wrote in the souvenir book of the Management Board of Halong Bay: “My deepest thanks to destiny, which has allowed me to come back to this tiny island.”

It’s a small island, but certainly one to be proud of. It is quiet and airy atmosphere as well as its clean white sand and clear waters. The beach is ideal for swimming nearly all year round. The island’s main attraction is possibly the pagoda-styled lookout point at its peak.

After climbing the 427 stone steps that wind up to the summit, one is treated to a most incredible 360-degree view of Halong Bay. Heading back to my cabin to shower and change for dinner, I discover a card inviting me to a wine tasting. So when we’re ready, we head back to the deck to sample the offerings of Chilean, South African and American grapes.

We sip and savour the taste on our palettes as the sun slowly drops behind the surrounding islands and the twilight dwindles – just another perfect Halong moment. Slightly tipsy after a sampling the wine, I’m happy to head for the restaurant and fill my stomach.

Sweet melodies of a traditional Vietnamese dan bau (a monochord instrument) fill the air as we feast on an international buffet with Vietnamese sweet-and-sour salad, crab and corn soup, fried rice, BBQ crab, shrimp, oysters and cuttlefish as well as seasonal fruit and green-bean and lotus seed cake for dessert.

With a canopy of glittering stars above us, a refreshing coolness in the air and flashes of fluorescent lamps from the cuttlefish boats in the distance, at night the bay is truly magical. It is pure bliss just to sit around with the other travellers, your friends or partner.

Some may be tempted to try an adventurous night activity and join fishermen casting out nets for cuttlefish before heading for bed but I’m perfectly happy to sit and quietly contemplate life with a nightcap. After a deep and dreamless slumber, the voices of vendors who have rowed up to our junk to sell snacks, seafood, souvenirs and cigarettes wakes me up.

Once roused, I head up to the deck where I’m informed we are heading to Ngoc Vung Island before kayaking around Cong Do fishing-village. Aye, aye Captain. We disembark the Indochina Sails and clamber onto a smaller wooden boat to dock on the shores of Ngoc Vung island where we are presented with mountain bikes for a cycling trip across this ruggedly beautiful island, which sits amongst the awe inspiring Halong archipelago.

Ngoc Vung (Mother Pearl) island is 50km from Halong City’s Wharf. Once – or so it is said – all around the island you could plunge below and find a plethora of pearls, hence the name Mother Pearl island. You can also find the most incredible deserted beaches!

From the wharf, we cycle along a coastal road that skirts the island’s hilly terrain while near the shore fishermen caulk their bamboo boats with tar. The road from the wharf to beach is rather short, just 5km. When we arrive the white sandy beach sparkles and glistens under the sunshine.

There is not a soul bathing on the beach – truly for tourists looking for a remote hidden getaway spot this fits the bill. The island is 12sqm in area with over 1,000 inhabitants living mainly off fishing, farming, aquaculture and afforesting.

But there are no bars or restaurants, no showers or toilets. But that’s why we’re here: to escape the crowds! After swimming, sun-bathing and walking along the beach, we head back to the boat where our tour guide introduces us to our kayaks. Again, taking a leisurely pace, we paddle around Cong Do, a floating fishing village in Bai Tu Long bay, 25km southeast of Halong wharf.

Here you can find shrimp, crab, fish, squid and aquatic plants. If you’re not shopping for dinner, it’s fun just to soak in the incredible atmosphere of a true Halong fishing village. Personally, it just reminds me that I’ve been promised a seafood dinner tonight back on board the Indochina Sails!

Full steam ahead captain! The Indochina Sails is currently offering a Sensational Summer Savings promotion package for a three day and two night cruise.

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