Nothing quite prepares you for the sheer beauty of Halong Bay in North Vietnam.
It is one of the world’s natural wonders and was declared a World Nature Heritage site by UNESCO in 1994.
It is also a common backdrop for movies set in Vietnam, but no matter how many photographs you have seen or films you have watched, its beauty still catches you unaware.
It is not until you are on the bay in a boat or better still, floating in the emerald green waters, looking up at the awesome limestone karsts and islands, that you truly appreciate these wonders.
There are more than 3000 islands rising from the clear waters of the Gulf of Tonkin and stretching along the 120km coastline of Bai Chay Beach, right up to the Chinese border.
The main town in the region is Halong City, which is bisected by a bay.
Bai Chay, the western part, is the more scenic and has the most hotels, restaurants and persistent touts – there are also casinos, an artificial beach and resorts.
Hon Gai in the eastern part is connected by the enormous Bai Chay Bridge. It is a major industrial port for Northern Vietnam and really just a stopping off point to visit Halong Bay.
It’s certainly possible to visit Halong Bay from Hanoi which is about a three-hour drive through the countryside where Vietnamese farmers, both men and women, work in the rice paddies and tend their water buffalo.
It is a busy port with lots of fishing and tourism boats competing for business.
The dragon-faced boats offer both shorter and longer cruises to see the craggy islands that tower into the skies, topped with lush vegetation and overhanging rocks.
The shapes have inspired fishermen to give many names for the animals and objects they resemble.
There is a crocodile, dragon, elephant, fighting cock, head of buffalo, neck of horse, black cloud and a teapot.
If you have more time, you may be tempted to catch a junk but beware you can end up going nowhere fast. They go so slowly on a calm day, they hardly seem to move.
There are many caves and grottoes and boats stop at various spots around the bay. The most impressive of the grottoes is the Hang Dau Go, a huge cave of three chambers while the Thien Cung Caves are also worth a look.
If you swim at night, you’ll gather small fluorescent shrimps on your body that literally make you glow in the dark.
A quaint Vietnamese fable about the creation of Halong Bay captures the romance and spirituality of the place. It states that the Gods, seeing an invading foreign force approaching the bay, sent down a dragon to drive off the invaders and protect the local people. The dragon smashed up the rocks around the bay with its flailing tail and stopped the attack leaving behind thousands of rocky islands and outcrops strewn across the bay.
Another version of the fable says the dragon descended from heaven to help locals by spitting jewels and jade to the sea.
If you are not into myths, science will tell you the limestone and dolomite karsts were created by the dual powers of wind and seawater eroding the rock over millions of years … but personally, I like the dragon theory.
There’s even a modern legendary creature attached to the bay. The Tarasque is said to haunt the area and local fishermen delight in telling stories about sightings.
A visit to a floating fishing village, where families spend their whole lives on small, simple boats made from woven bamboo and caulked with tar is also often included on cruises around the bay.
The families make a living from selling seafood to tourists and locals and a school teacher visits the floating village to instruct children regularly.
As we pass, dogs bark from the deck and carefully run the length of the boat keeping out of the water. Radios play and televisions blare from some boats, as children fish and play.
It is a way of life that is fast disappearing, according to our guide.
As you near the shores of Halong Bay, take one long last look at the pretty islands often partly shrouded in mist.
If you look hard enough, you may just make out the spine of the dragon, jutting from the emerald seas – like those legends say.
It is a wonderful sight that leaves you wishing you could spend longer…
Published under license from Well Travelled