Halong Bay by junk, kayak and on foot

Getting there

Disappointment is a curious emotion - it quietly drowns your spirits and turns the atmosphere leaden. Such was the ambiance in our mini-busload of people heading off from Hanoi to Halong Bay in the steadily falling rain and fog; leaden sky, leaden spirits. This is the dry season in the north of Vietnam and December only averages 40mm of rain - it was all falling today. The unspoken question nagging in everyone's mind was whether the spectacle of this bay of 1969 islands, one of the natural wonders of the world, would be hidden or diminished by the unseasonal weather.

The hour long wait at Halong Port in drizzle and a crowd of tourists, both arriving and departing, to sort out tickets and find the right junk out of the hundreds in the harbour did not improve the collective mood. The jostling fleet was almost grid-locked, like scooters on a Hanoi Christmas Eve. Eventually, we boarded the "Huy Hoang", a very comfortable junk with a lot of character and, under the skilful guidance of our captain, manouevred our way out to sea to join the strange flotilla vanishing into the grey mists of Halong Bay.

Halong to Ti Top Island


A harbour-full of junks at Halong Port

We donned our wet weather gear and stood defiantly on the top deck in the face of the rain. Slowly out of the mists they began to appear, giant shapes rising out of the sea - the karst towers of Halong appeared faintly at first, then took form in fantastic shades of bluish-grey emerging from a pale green-grey sea.

Cliffs fading into blue

Junk dwarfed by the sheer karst cliffs

The towers of Halong Bay emerge from the mists

The flotilla heads up the channel between karst islands

It was a beautiful almost monochrome world of ocean, sky and rock that we had entered and our spirits soared. Even in this weather, or perhaps because of it, the magic of the Halong landscapes triumphed.

From the boat deck, we passed an everchanging ......

... seascape of curious shapes

Halong Bay on a bleak and rainy day - absolutely beautiful

A floating village

After cruising slowly amongst the ethereal columns of limestone, we passed a floating village to rejoin the mad scrabble of junks and land at Hang Sung Sot Island. Here we visited a massive and strangely dry cavern deep in the island's interior, a long line of tourists snaking through like the file at Uncle Ho's mausoleum, but with considerably less respect. The main chamber of the cave was big enough to swallow all the passengers from all the junks on the bay and, in the case of some embarassingly loud and foul-mouthed compatriots, I wished it had done so.

Is a cave formation really more beautiful when illuminated in blue, green red or yellow lights - I think not!

The massive interior of Sung Sot Cave, garishly illuminated in blue, green and yellow

At least some of the formations ...

.. could be appreciated....

... in their natural beauty

The fleet waits for tourists to visit the cave

The beach at Ti Top island - a rare bit of sand

View from above the beach at Ti Top Island

Lighting apart, the cave had been fascinating, but it was good to escape massed humanity and return to the "Huy Hoang" for a short trip over to Ti Top Island and a climb over some 300 steps to its conical peak. Here, in the late evening light, we had a birds-eye view of this cluster of rugged islands - with the lights of the armada of junks assembled beneath beginning to twinkle and (almost) blend in with the breathtaking beauty of the setting.

The classic view of Halong Bay from the lookout at Ti Top Island - taken as evening falls

The floating city of lights ....

.... and the serene beauty of Halong Bay by night

That evening, we joined the floating city of lights, as junks from all over assembled in these calm waters for dinner and a night on board. Sitting on deck and looking at the brooding reflections of islets in the dark waters, sparkling with the lights of this strange armada of junks, the disappointment of the morning seemed very far away. Halong Bay is that kind of place!

Ti Top Island to Cat Ba

The morning was clearer, the rain reduced to a dampness that settled on you, and all around junks were stirring for the day's exploration, before heading off in various directions. The "Huy Hoang" headed south and, as the fleet dispersed, we felt more alone amongst the karst towers of Halong Bay; it was a good feeling as we sailed past a procession of limestone islands to reach another floating village at the northern end of Dan Hang Trai Island.

A junk with sails unfurled

At the last the weather improves

Fishing boat near Dan Hang Trai Island

The "Huy Hoang" leaves us

The "Trinh Vu" arrives to pick us up

A solitary islet

Here we drifted in circles in the curious current for twenty minutes, waiting for the arrival of a smaller junk. It was changeover time - those only doing a 2-day cruise would stay aboard and return to Halong, those of us who opted for a 3-day cruise boarded the "Trinh Vu" and headed further south down a long channel towards Lan Ha Bay and our eventual destination, Cat Ba Island.

We slowly puttered down the channel, lined with eroded and dark-stained limestone cliffs, topped with rich green vegetation, and undercut by waves to create the odd sea-caves and arches. A trio of Cat Ba hawks soared on thermals above the rocky islets and, every so often, we passed a grey heron standing rigidly on the rocky ledges watching for fish.

Cat Ba hawk

Shrine on the shore

A navigation marker appeared ahead, and the "Trinh Vu" turned in to pick its way past a cluster of islets and reach the dock of Viet Hai, a small village on Cat Ba Island - it was time for a little land-based activity. The drizzle had returned, so wet weather gear was brought out again, and we selected a mountain bike each from amongst a number of short-seated, broken-geared specimens and headed off inland along a narrow 6km concrete road that connected the harbour to the village of Viet Hai. It was all good fun, pedalling along in the warmish drizzle with knees around our ears, along the edge of a long inlet, then a few short hill climbs and descents beneath jungle-clad karst domes to reach Viet Hai at the edge of a cultivated flat.

The road to Viet Hai

By mountain bike to Viet Hai village

Rural landscape on Cat Ba Island

Reflections in a still inlet

A stroll in the Cat Ba rain forest

Kayaks waiting for paddlers

The original intention here was to climb Navy Peak for spectacular views over the offshore islets, but the local guide declared the track too slippery and took us for a wander through the dense vegetation of Cat Ba to see a cave used by the villagers as a shelter from American bombing during in the Vietnam War (apparently they were trying to destroy radar units on Cat Ba).

Our reward for all of this was the opportunity to swig a shot of rice wine in which a snake and chicken had been pickled for several months! Very good for the back they said (I hope so!).

Cat Ba forestscape

After riding back again, including a detour to pass through a tunnel in the limestone, we set sail once again. This time we were bound for Lan Ha Bay, where we moored next to one of the floating houses and kayak centre.

Floating house and fish farm

Lunch and drizzle over, we hopped into the kayaks for the chance to paddle around the islets, floating homes, fish traps and nets, limestone cliffs, undercut ledges with the odd freshwater springs flowing out of their bases, and small sandy coves in a dark turquoise sea that make up the fascinating world of Lan Ha Bay.

It was good to get some upper body exercise.

The rugged interior of Cat Ba island

Entering the cave at Viet Hai

Undercutting of a karst cliff viewed from a kayak

Exploring Lan Ha Bay by kayak ...

...you can get up close to the rocky islets ....

.... and meet the local fishermen

The floating village and fish farms of Cat Ba


Evening was now rapidly approaching, so we boarded our junk once more and headed off around this crazily indented coastline to Cat Ba township, a booming little resort town with a very large offshore village of floating houses and fish farms.

Tonight we would call Cat Ba home.

Father and son

Cat Ba to Halong

By the next day the rain had completely cleared and, although the sun tried on occasion to shine, the sky remained generally overcast. We boarded the "Trinh Vu" and retraced our steps, this time keeping to the seaward side of Lan Ha Bay. With no island breakwaters, the junk rolled along in the ocean swell until it once again entered the protected waters of the channel between Cat Ba and Dan Hang Trai Islands. Although we had been here already, it was a different harsher landscape now than the softly monochrome world of our first day. Clearly Ha Long Bay has many moods - we were lucky to have seen two of them.

Rugged cliff-line covered with a mantle of green

The channel between Cat Ba and Dan Hang Trai Islands

Geology of the karst cliffs

Local fishermen out in the morning

A singular column

Passing Ti Top Island for the last time

Reaching the northern end of Dan Hang Trai, we did the same boat swap as yesterday in reverse and set off northward on the "Hua Hoang" on a slightly more westerly return to Halong than our outward passage; one last chance to appreciate the beauty of this remarkable part of the world.


Passing the rugged western group of islands on our way home

Heading towards Halong City

On the mainland the mountains receded in pastel shades of blue

Farewell to Halong Bay

Looking over the bow of our junk as we return to port

Almost as remarkable as the scenery was the gradual convergence of junks from every part of the bay onto the port at Halong as they reassembled for the midday changeover of tourists. Once off the boat, we stopped briefly for lunch, enabling us to have the views of the bay from the mainland that were denied on our trip out. Then it was back in the bus and home to Hanoi.

Lunchtime views from the mainland before heading back to Hanoi

There is no doubt that Halong Bay is a popular destination and tourists come here from all over the world - on our trip we had pleasant travelling companions from Australia, Brazil, Colombia, Hong Kong, Japan, Germany and Turkey which added to the interest of the journey itself. Despite the uncertain start, it will be one of the highlights of our time in Vietnam.