Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Floating in paradise in Halong Bay on luxury junk

GETTING to Halong Bay in Vietnam's northeast has been quite a journey.

It has taken almost four hours by road to cover the 180km from Hanoi, and all the while we are dodging a typhoon. Earlier in the morning our trip was cancelled when authorities ordered all vessels out of the World Heritage-listed bay.

Kayaking Halong Bay, Vietnam

Kayaking Halong Bay, Vietnam

Disappointed, we console ourselves with the thought that while we might miss out on seeing one of the world's most beautiful geographical treasures, we could always go shopping.

Then the captain of the Bhaya junk calls to give the all-clear. The typhoon has changed course, yet again, and it is now safe to set sail.

Arriving at Halong Bay
It is mid-afternoon when we finally arrive in Halong, and we don't have time to catch our breath before we are ushered on to a tender that takes us to the luxury junk waiting patiently in the warm waters of the bay. We are hot and tired, but then something magical happens.

The junk, a traditional oriental wooden vessel with sails, sets off and soon we are embraced by dozens of limestone islands that rise majestically out of the calm waters. It is serene and breathtaking, and it is now you thank your lucky stars you made the effort.

Cruise director Bac - who is also a tai chi master - welcomes us on board with an ice-cold cocktail and a list of instructions. Paramount is to relax and have fun, and Bac and his team are determined to make that happen.

The junk has 20 cabins, all airconditioned and with ensuites, on the lower deck. The upper deck is open-plan for eating and dancing - Bac likes to dance - and there is a sundeck upstairs.

You can do as much, or as little, as you want on the two-day cruise. The energetic can opt for a swim and a walk through the many caves dotted around the bay. There is also fishing at dusk and tai chi at dawn. Or, like me, you can sit back and take in the spectacular views.

About 1600 people live on Halong Bay in the four fishing villages of Cua Van, Ba Hang, Cong Tau and Vong Vieng. Most live on floating houses where washing flaps in the breeze on deck and children swim as their parents fish.

Foodies delight
Lunch is a delicious Vietnamese buffet and during the meal we plan our afternoon activities. Some of our group jump on board the tender for the quick trip to the beach for a swim; others have booked a massage that can be done on deck or in your room.

Dinner is a seafood buffet, followed by drinks on the deck as Bac turns up the music and encourages guests to follow his lead on the dance floor. At about 10pm, the typhoon threatens again and we are forced to take shelter in a nearby cove. If there is a storm, I don't notice. I sleep like a baby. We wake to light showers, and although the weather never appears threatening to us nautical novices, the captain decides it will be safer to head to the harbour.

After breakfast Bac takes a tai chi class on the sundeck and then turns up the volume for a farewell dance with guests as the junk calmly heads home. Halong Bay - its name means Bay of Descending Dragons - passes peacefully by as we drink green tea on deck. The tender returns us to shore for the journey back to Hanoi.

It has been about 15 years since I was last in Halong, and there have been many changes in the city. There are now 300 hotels and even a casino to cater for the ever-increasing number of tourists that is expected to rise to about 2.5 million this year.

Some things will never change, however. You can rest assured this bay of beautiful islands will always remain serene and spectacular.



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