Halong Bay was gorgeous. It sounds cliche, but it was truly great. We booked a great tour though Handspan Adventures. Our charming guide Chi’s trademark phrase was "Before Happy House, everyone uncomfortable and unhappy. After using Happy House, all happy!"
After a bumpy three hour bus ride, with one Happy House stop, we boarded a beautiful wooden junk called Dragon’s Pearl.
Our room was tiny yet cozy, completely lined with red-stained wood. There were carved wooden details all over the interior and exterior spaces of the junk.
The other passengers were fun and interesting, and we started cruising through the island rock formations. It was like we were floating through one of those old Chinese paintings, with impossible cliffs and top-heavy formations. Apparently the bay’s original name meant Dragon Falling. It does remind you of a dragon’s undulating body half-submerged in the bay — protruding crustily here and there.
We weighed anchor at a dome-shaped island, with several temple-like structures on it.
On closer inspection there was a beach and snack stand too. We realized this would actually be the perfect warm-weather vacation — swimming off the side of the boat or on the beach, and cruising along through the formations. And it would probably only cost a group about fifteen hundred dollars to rent the boat for a week. Some other time.
We climbed to the top of the island — to the pagoda shaped building. This is the view from the top.
In the winter, fog over an impossible landscape inspires quiet. The scenery is romantic. Far off islands are just purple silhouettes, while you can see more detail on the closer ones.
And we were a little surprised at how great the food was on board. This delicate tuna in a special soy sauce was one of many tasty dishes.
Occasionally, a woman would row up in a tiny wooden boat yelling "Oreos! Oreos! Hey you! You want Oreos? What about a hammock? How about beer?"
We later learned these women lived in floating villages, and this was a big source of income. People have lived in floating villages in the bay for a long time — boats tied to each other at night, and maybe a few floating huts. In recent times, the villagers have more modern shaped homes, generators, TVs and radios. But the homes are still floating, lashed together. And a lot of the villagers still fish for a living.
The junk stopped at an island containing the biggest cave I’ve ever seen. It’s a dramatic limestone cave with sprawling ovoid rooms that go on and on, and baroque formations. I was imagining holding a glutenous Victorian-themed party there with giant red velvet couches formed around the stalagmites, and chandeliers.
Here’s the view outside the cave.
As we got back onto the boat, a woman and her young sons rowed up in a small boat. They were selling seashells, and were ultimately too cute for our group to resist.
That evening, we sat out on top of the boat for a while in the dark, amongst the islands. We could see the lights of some other boats nearby. It could have been a noisy party scene, but the bay inspires silence, and it was very peaceful.