After trekking in the northern highlands of Vietnam and exploring the buzzing streets of Hanoi, Keith and I thought that an overnight cruise on Halong Bay would be a perfect romantic and relaxing getaway for us.
I couldn’t wait to return to Halong Bay. I had beautiful memories of it from my first visit in Vietnam in 2005. I told Keith how enchanted I was by its picturesque seascape of limestone pillars rising up from the water. I found it unspoiled, mystical and romantic, and I was charmed by the sight of exotic traditional junk boats sailing the bay. Keith couldn’t wait to experience Halong Bay for himself; it was the destination in our Vietnam itinerary that he was most excited about.
However, as soon as we arrived at the port, it became apparent to us that things had changed.
The Port of Halong
These were some of the photos I took of the port of Halong Bay in 2005. It was filled with traditional junk boats. I loved its atmosphere of rawness, of foreignness and its fascinating chaos. It reminded me that I really stepped into faraway, exotic land.
And this was the port during our visit in November 2012. Keith and I thought, “Are we in Florida, or California or Long Island in New York perhaps? Flanked by high-end condominium developments, the port today looked so sanitized, so developed, a bit Disney-esque, in fact. Exotic no more. All the boats were white. Where were the traditional brown or red junk boats?
Even our boat was sparkling white! I swear it was brown on the website (it was probably an old photo).
I asked the cruise manager if those exotic brown/red junk boats were perhaps docked or sailing in another part of the bay? He answered, ”No more brown or red boats or other colored boats, only white.” He explained that under new government regulation all boats cruising Halong Bay must be painted white. Oh well….whatever the reason is, it’s just not the same.
And the food was delicious!
After enjoying a sumptuous lunch, we settled in the private balcony of our room and enjoyed the spectacular view of of the bay and its majestic karsts (limestone formation). We were enjoying the tranquility, beauty and romance of the bay UNTIL……
Holy cow! What is this huge, ugly industrial ship doing in Halong Bay? The Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Isn’t it s supposed to be protected from anything colossal, like this ship, that may harm its environment?
And then we passed by another monstrous one and then another one.
We looked further ahead and we saw a lot more. They seemed to outnumbered the karsts. Oh well, there goes the tranquility, beauty and romance of the bay. Disappointed, we retreated to our room and waited for the first planned activity for the day.
We later asked the cruise manager to enlighten us about the presence of the industrial ships on Halong Bay. He excitedly quipped that they were logistic boats that transport goods into Vietnam. He made it sound like It was a great thing.
The Floating Village of Vung Vieng
Part of our cruise itinerary was a visit to the floating fishing village. I thought that our boat was just going to sail along and we would observe the village as we pass it by, like how it was done in my previous cruise. However, we were told to disembark upon reaching the village “gate” and to transfer to one of the many row boats that were waiting to take the tourists to the village.
Before getting on the row boat, one of the locals gave us a brief orientation about the village and the itinerary of the village tour. It sounded too organized.
The village of Vung Vieng is one of the the four floating fishing villages on Halong Bay.
People have lived in the floating villages for many generation. Fishing and aquaculture are their main sources of livelihood.
They say people in the floating villages learn to fish before they can walk.
The colorful homes on the villages are supported by floating rafts. Most of the households raise fish and shellfish under the rafts.
The floating grocery store.
We were herded into a floating area they called “community center.”
The community center was actually a tourist center. It has a shop selling handicrafts and souvenirs (the same ones found in other parts of Vietnam but more expensive), a small museum and some fishponds that display the different variety of fish that thrive (or used to thrive?) in the waters of Halong Bay.There was also small classroom with a handful of children. Tourists were going in and out of the classroom to take pictures while the class was going on. We thought it was plain disrespectful and disruptive. But then nobody seemed to discourage them. At this point, we felt deeply sad as too how commercialized this floating village had become.
After the trip, we read up more about the conditions of the fishing villages on Halong Bay. We learned that the supply of fish has been scarce the last few years due to pollutants caused by villagers’ own waste (they don’t have toilets), fuels and rubbish from irresponsible tourist boats, etc. To supplement their income, the villagers have resorted to tourism.
After leaving the community center, we rowed towards this majestic rock with a tunnel. We were excited to go through and see what was on the other side. What did we see? More majestic karsts and more humongous industrial ships.
We were then herded into the pearl farm.
On a floating workshop, this young lady demonstrated how the pearl seeds are planted on oyster shells. They will be then cultivated on the farm for about 18 months. Halong Bay is said to produce fine quality of cultured pearls.We were then led to the shop where pearl jewelries were sold. I think everyone felt that we could have skipped the shopping part.
The Second Day
We woke up to a beautiful morning. (There were still lots of industrial ships around but we chose not to focus on them).
A tai-chi class on the deck was a nice way to start the day.
Our main activity this morning was a visit to one of the caves on the bay. We followed these boats heading into a picturesque inlet where the cave was located.
More boats heading for the cave. They actually looked pretty when their sails are up.
The Han Sung Sot (‘Surprise Cave’).
Our ghost-like images inside the cave.
The sheer size of the cave (it has three chambers) was very impressive….
… and its drip formations were very fascinating…….but the garish lighting and cemented walkways made it look more like theme park than a raw wonder of nature.
The view of nature outside the cave was thankfully untouched by human hands and was truly spectacular. We took our time to enjoying the sight as we were heading back to the port from here.
Despite some disappointments, we were glad we did the cruise. Halong Bay as a nature is still beautiful. Lesson learned: changes are imminent, don’t expect a place to stand still.
You can find out more about the Bhaya Legend Cruise at www.bhayacruises.com.
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