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Must See Sight: North Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay

I had misgivings when we first landed at the departure site for voyages to Halong Bay, a three hour drive outside of Hanoi.  There was a cluster of tourist boats and a throng of vacationers growing larger by the moment waiting to board from the one communal dock at Tuan Chau Pier. I had heard that Halong was an ethereal, romantic setting but it wouldn’t be with noisy crowds and bumper to bumper boats.

All fears dissipated, though, as we glided past the throng in the Heritage Linelaunch and approached our boat, the Jasmine Cruise, far out in the harbor on its own.  Constructed as a Vietnamese junk six years ago with interiors of polished wood, the boat has 24 cabins including two junior suites measuring 258 square feet with a Jacuzzi and outside balcony so they’re comfortable and attractive, decorated in a retro Indochine style. Meals are buffet style with a mix of Western and Vietnamese dishes—and a dedicated pho station for breakfast since all breakfasts in Vietnam must feature the famed noodle soup (and theirs was pretty good.)

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During the two days and one night that we all spent on board, though, the accoutrements definitely fell second to the sights. The mythic explanation for Halong Bay Cruises is that a dragon fell to earth and its thrashing tail created the 1600 ruggedly shaped islands that dot the smooth bays. The fact that it was January, traditionally a misty month in this region, added a layer of softness to the shapes, with the jagged rocks poking through the mist as we moved silently through them. Hypnotically beautiful.

There were activities, of course. We were tendered over to one island to climb through Tien Ong Cave and its collection of limestone stalagtites and stalagmites estimated to be over 700,000 years old.  We were rowed over to see the fishing village of Cua Van, a collection of floating huts without electricity but with many dog house pets (the prevailing question—where do these dogs walk? They don’t, it seems, they swim.)

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The next morning, most ducked the offer to go over to a deserted beach on Ti Top island and climb the many steps up for the vista, preferring to check out the island views from the deck–in warmer weather, we might have been more willing. In fact, in warmer weather,  I plan to return, take a longer cruise, perhaps on their premiere boat, the 5 cabin Violet, that goes deeper into the bay and includes visits to the rain forest, a local village and school and kayaking around cave tunnels among other excursions.