The scenery is breathtaking as you come to the shore of Halong Bay. Huge rocky monoliths jut out from the Gulf of Tonkin like rugged fingers, changing color constantly in the sunlight. There are literally thousands of limestone figures of all shapes and sizes. It is easy to understand why this is Vietnam’s most visited natural attraction.
Located along the northern coastline in the Quang Ninh province, the islands and rocks seem to come out of nowhere, offering a maze of inlets and coves to explore. UNESCO has labeled it one of its World Heritage sites. It is also in the running to be named to the future listing of the New Seven Wonders of Nature.
The best and almost only way to visit Halong Bay is to hire a junk and work your way among the passageways. The figures all but beckon to you from as you make your way from the port at Halong City on the mainland. The docks are filled with junks of all shapes and sizes, each having the prerequisite dragon’s head on their bow.
The appearance is appropriate because Halong Bay means “bay of descending dragons.” A centuries old legend tells of a massive dragon which appeared and spat out pearls to block the invading ships. The pearls became the islands, which shield Halong Bay from the rest of the Gulf of Tonkin and beyond that, the South China Sea.
We hoisted our sails on our junk and headed out on the water, straight in to a photograph. Each island was more spectacular than the next with trees hanging off the rocky cliffs and dark shadows of the caves that permeate the formations.
Steep walls assure than almost all of the islands are uninhabited, but hidden within some of the coves entire villages floating on the water. Residents fish in the area surrounding their village and then pass their catch on to larger boats that take the fish to the mainland to sell. Sampans moved back and forth between the homes, which seemed to have their own “property” in various parts of the cove.
We moved through the limestone figures, playing hide and seek around the rocks with the sun. We finally lost it behind the jagged hills of one of the larger islands, signaling our need to return to port. As we meandered back onto Halong Bay, the islands turned to dark shades of purple. By the time we neared the twinkling lights on shore, the islands themselves looked like a huge, dark dragon slumbering on the horizon behind us.