Chairborne Ranger Banner
Return to Vietnam 2008
Vietnam 2008 -- Halong Bay

· Click on a thumbnail image to view a full-sized picture.
· Links external to this website will open in a new window.

Most people know about Halong Bay -- they just don't know that they know…

But once people see pictures of the bay, they immediately know they've seen it before, somewhere. Photographs of Halong Bay are
Halong BayHalong Bay
famous for their eerie, haunting quality -- hundreds of spectacular limestone karsts sticking up out of smooth waters, often shrouded in mist or fog.

In the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, Bond pursues classic bad-guy Elliott Carver (Jonathan Pryce) through the bay. A 2006 episode, or "leg", of the reality tv series The Amazing Race took place on -- and in -- the bay.

The bay itself has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site -- which means that it will get special attention for its preservation.

And it needs it. The huge influx of tourism has taxed the ecology of the bay to its maximum, and even in the depths of the caves you can see the results of careless tourists. In addition, because the islands are limestone, the inside of the caves is subject to deterioration just from the carbon dioxide exhaled by tourists.

So anyway, during our stay in Hanoi, we took an overnight side trip to spend a night on a boat on Halong Bay. (I know, I was contributing to the destruction, but this really was one of those once-in-a-lifetime things...)

Early on the morning of September 11 (purely coincidental) we boarded a small tour bus for a harrowing trip through the teeming millions of Hanoi and the famously insane Hanoi traffic out to the northeast of the city and our overnight trip.

Once we got to the jumping off point -- or shoving off point -- and I saw the lineup of tourist boats, I started wondering just how crowded this trip was going to be. There were literally hundreds of boats waiting for the influx of the new crop of tourists. But surprisingly, once we got out onto the bay itself, it was relatively uncrowded. Of course, the bay covers some 1553 square kilometers -- almost 600 square miles, so there was room to spread out a little. .

The boat itself was smaller than I expected, with staterooms that held two people each,
Tour Boat
with enough staterooms for a full contingent of probably no more than 20 passengers. Since it was the "off season", our boat didn't have nearly that many on board, though. Besides Minh and myself, there was a couple from Paris, a couple from New Zealand, a mother and her two teenage daughters from Belgium, and a young guy from Aix-en-Provence in France, who is Vietnamese but he had been born and
Son Quach with Us Drinking Beer
raised in France. His parents own a Vietnamese restaurant in Aix -- or "X" as he calls it -- which he will be taking over when they retire soon. He was on a "food tour" and took pictures of every meal -- but that didn't stop him from joining us on our "beer tour"…

Part of the two-day tour of the bay included a walking/climbing stairs trip inside one of the several huge grottos. I believe it was the Thien Cung grotto, but since I didn't take notes, that's only a guess. According to our tour guide, there
Inside the Grotto
had been plans to hide a couple of regiments of NVA in the grotto in case of US invasion. And from the size of it, it's totally believable.

I should have gotten into better shape before the trip, since I wasn't used to climbing all the stairs and all the walking we had to do to see the grotto. You can see the sweat dripping off of me in several of the photos. Nevertheless, it was well worth it. But, if I’d dropped dead of a heart attack during the climb, I probably wouldn’t feel that way at all…

In the evening we all hung around the main salon of the boat for dinner and, of course, beer. By nine o'clock, everyone on my boat
Dining Salon
had gone to bed, the bunch of party-poopers, and I was the only one awake. I grabbed a couple of beers from the fridge (it was on the "honor system", wherein you just marked down next to your name the number of beers you drank and then paid for it at the end of the trip -- like that was really going to work…) and went up to the upper deck so I could smoke a couple of cigars and look at the stars.

Another boat like ours had at some time in the evening tied up next to ours, and there was a regular party going happening on their upper deck. One of the women yelled out a greeting and asked me to come over to their boat.

Well, I didn't want to come off as a rude American stuckup, so naturally
The Party Boat
I went over and there I met a couple from London who were off on a two-year honeymoon around the world, a father and son from Amsterdam, two twenty-something women who were also from The Netherlands, and a couple of guys who were also from there. And amazingly none of the three groups of two had ever met before getting on the boat.

"You're kidding," I said. "You can throw a rock from one side of your country to the other." Well, not literally true, but it's still a very small country, which made for a pretty amazing coincidence when you think about it.

Anyway, they were a pretty humorous lot and fun to be around, especially the father-son combo, and I stayed up way too late partying with them. But hey, I was on vacation...

The next day was consumed with more chugging around the bay, visiting several floating villages consisting mainly of fishermen eking a living out of the marine life of the bay --
Floating 7-11
and I'd say doing a little better with selling stuff to the tourists.

We also took a kayak trip around -- and through -- one of the islands, which was very exciting but also very tiring. Like I said, I wasn't in the kind of physical shape that I really should have been for this trip.

Finally we reluctantly returned to the dock and headed back to Hanoi -- but not before stopping at a hotel/restaurant on the way for more food and -- surprise -- beer…

If I had it to do over, I'd plan on the two-night boat trip. It was so calm and relaxing out on the water after the hustle of Hanoi. In fact, I'd take a trip back to Vietnam just to go to Halong Bay.