Sunrise in Halong Bay, Vietnam

Sunrise in Halong Bay, Vietnam

with 33 Comments

 

 

It was raining cats and dogs when we arrived in Halong Bay. When we left Hanoi earlier that day, I had no idea we would need 4 hours to reach the Gulf of Tonkin. In Europe, we would have needed only 2 hours to reach a destination of 170 kilometers. But in Vietnam, things were a bit different, especially back in 2014.

 

Are we on a highway? Oh yes, of course this is one of the most popular highways in Northern Vietnam. Our guide Than sounded proud to be a Hanoi native. So, you cannot drive faster than 65-70 kilometers per hour on this highway? No, no. Not faster! The road is in a bad condition, there are too many motorbikes. And lots of holes. Look, look, here! As our guide pointed at a pothole, our driver suddenly hit the brake. And then accelerated again after bypassing the depression and a few motorbikes hunting from right and left.

 

 

You see over there? Now Than was pointing at roadworks in the distance. In a few years, there will be a new highway. Maybe in 2018, you can drive to Halong Bay in only 2 hours. Imagine, you will win 2 hours for one way! You won’t have to sleep in Halong Bay, when you visit us again in a few years. You can make a quick day trip to Halong and come back to Hanoi in the evening. You will save a lot of money and see more of Hanoi!

 

I looked at Kerstin and we both shot our guide a polite smile. I resisted the urge to explain that we wanted to stay a night in Halong Bay. That we didn’t like to rush when traveling. But I decided to change the subject and ask him about Hanoi’s architecture…

 

It is still raining, please wait in the “waiting room”. What waiting room, we asked. Oh, the room where you wait for me! I go get the tickets for your boat trip. And you wait here in the room, OK? When we walked into the “waiting room”, a brouhaha of dozens of different languages filled our ears. Hundreds of tourists were sitting and standing in the hall. Americans, French, Brits, Russians, Chinese, Germans… Despite the rain, the heat was still palpable. And in this jam-packed hall, sweat was running down everyone’s neck.

 

Do you think we’ll be on the same boat as all the tourists here? I sensed Kerstin’s worried tone and didn’t know what to answer. Well, I hope it will stop raining soon. Or what view of Halong Bay will we get?

 

Victory Star Junk in Halong Bay, Vietnam © Travelwithmk.com

 

I wasn’t done worrying when Than’s smiling face popped up behind our shoulders. Here, look, I have your tickets! We can go now. He pushed open the misted glass door and held up a rainbow colored umbrella over us. For a moment, I wondered if the travel agency revealed to all our private guides that we’re a lesbian couple. Clutched to our rainbow umbrella, we followed Than down to the dock. As we boarded the Victory Star Junk Boat, I swiftly heard my father’s voice in my head: never sleep on a boat! Never go on a cruise!

 

When my family fled Vietnam in December 1978, they became boat people. For eight months, they were “prisoners at sea”, sitting like sardines on the Tung An freighter, off the coast of Manila. Before being moved to Tara Island for four more months, waiting to be resettled overseas.

 

I was not on that ship. I was not part of the boat people. I was not a Vietnamese refugee, for I was born in Luxembourg a few years later. But growing up, I kept hearing my family’s creepy stories on the sea. My fear of the ocean could never be compared to that of my family’s, nor other Vietnamese boat people’s thalassophobia. However, the terror of a possible death in an ocean was great enough to make me swear I would never get on a cruise.

 

 

But then, the idea of spending a night on a boat, feasting on the spectacular seascape of limestone pillars, really tickled me. After all, it was just one night. Aboard a luxurious five-star junk, with only 32 cabins… absolutely human-scale and safe. And it’s not in a big scary ocean, but in a bay. A UNESCO World Heritage Site to be exact.

 

Are you OK? Kerstin shot me a worried look, snapping me out of my daydream. I grinned bravely and we entered our cabin. Our luggage was already waiting for us, next to an ebony bed. The sea breeze waltzed with the gilded curtains and uncovered a private balcony. I walked over to close the window and caught a glimpse of what seemed to be a sunbeam, fighting its way through the dissipating grey clouds.

 

Halong Bay, Vietnam © Travelwithmk.com

 

When you come from a country as Lilliputian as Luxembourg, chances are that you get to hear welcoming words followed by an exclamation mark. Sometimes by a question mark. But usually an exclamation mark: Oh, you’re from Luxembourg! That’s unusual! How rare to meet someone from such a tiny country! But then, when you really come from a country as small as Luxembourg, you’re probably used to these exclamation marks. We usually simper, nod our head and say nothing more. That’s exactly what we did when the waiter of the restaurant onboard led us to our table.

 

Each couple had a dedicated table. Each table showcased the national flag of the guests’ country. All the other couples had a flag made of fabric. Ours was made of paper. Clearly it had just been printed less than an hour ago. I hope this is the right flag? The waiter asked nervously, before pulling out another red-white-blue flag from his pocket. Kerstin laughed out loud and said: No worries! This is the right flag. The one you’re holding in your hand is that of the Netherlands. They’re similar, but the blue stripe on the flag of Luxembourg is lighter. Oh yes, I see now! The waiter giggled, nodded his head a few times and finally withdrew to the kitchen.

 

On the Victory Star Junk in Halong Bay, Vietnam © Travelwithmk.com

 

The rain stopped after lunch. When we were getting ready to visit Vung Vieng fishing village, the sky was clearing up. The sunbeam that I’d seen earlier finally managed to find its way through the clouds.

 

From our junk boat, we climbed into a speedboat which brought us to a floating platform in the middle of Halong Bay. There, four by four we climbed into a bamboo boat, welcomed by a slender lady in a conical hat. When a couple of baby-boomers settled down behind us, the boat started to sway.

 

Halong Bay, Vietnam © Travelwithmk.com

 

The noise of their orange life jackets squeezed between each other and against the vessel’s rim made us edgy. Is the lady strong enough to row our boat? Kerstin whispered in my ear that perhaps we should help her. What? To row? As I turned around, I was even more worried to see the face of an elderly lady hidden under the hat. But when our bamboo boat started to glide on Halong Bay’s emerald waters, she rowed faster and faster, overtaking the other boats.

 

None of us spoke. We were all savoring the sound of the wavelets pushing against our tiny boat. And marveling at numerous caves inside conical peaks, arches between towers made of limestone and hundreds of virgin islets and uninhabited islands…

 

Halong Bay, Vietnam © Travelwithmk.com

 

The peace and quiet of Halong Bay ceased as soon as our boat approached the Hang Sung Sot caves. Hundreds of tourists were lining up at the grotto’s entrance. We were told to queue up behind them. The family of four in front of us were too polite to not let a group of French students jump the queue. Kerstin and I both agreed that they must be British. Or Buddhists. Or perhaps they didn’t want to offend any representative of France, since it was the French who discovered this cave in 1901?

 

Our British friends seemed to be familiar with speleology. Since Kerstin is a big fan of grottoes and caves, we decided to follow them for a while, listening to the father as he explained to his teenage son how the karst features were formed. We stopped more often than the other visitors but moved past those who were taking selfies with a massive rock formed as a phallus and lit by a pink spotlight.

 

Hang Sung Sot Caves in Halong Bay, Vietnam © Travelwithmk.com

 

The trip back to the Victoria Star Junk took place on a motorboat. It was shorter and faster. Still, I missed our lady friend who brought us to the cave. And regretted that we had not given her more tips for her hard work. A few hours later, we kept talking about her when we settled down on the upper deck. We guessed about her age, her name, the number of hours she had to row in a day, the number of passengers she had carried on her boat…

 

Slowly, the sun was setting across Halong Bay. Soft pink clouds settled above the faint outline of the limestone islets.

 

Sunset in Halong Bay, Vietnam © Travelwithmk.com

 

When I woke up at 5am the next morning, the pastel colored sky from the previous evening was replaced by hues of midnight blue. But on the horizon, I spotted a hint of orange. Catching a sunrise has always been a challenge for me. As a night owl, I get creative when the world goes to sleep. Kerstin always says that I write the best stories when the clock strikes midnight. So, I get to watch a sunrise only once in a blue moon.

 

Standing on our private balcony, I kept my eyes on the orange tinge, which soon turned into flaming red. It slowly stretched across Halong Bay, revealing one by one the many limestone pinnacles, looming out of the water. Fog patches began to dissolve. But the world remained bathed in silence. Kerstin discreetly joined me on the balcony. Together, we were glued to this blissful spectacle. A daily spectacle that is often overlooked…

 

 

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Sunrise in Halong Bay, Vietnam © Travelwithmk.com

Sunrise in Halong Bay, Vietnam © Travelwithmk.com

Sunrise in Halong Bay, Vietnam © Travelwithmk.com

 

Follow Mei:

Traveler - Storyteller

Mei is a 30-something Archaeologist, born and raised in Luxembourg. Besides traveling, she loves eating sushi and stinky cheese (although not at the same time), as well as listening to Kerstin's funny stories while driving on long road trips. She's afraid of heights, but adores panoramic views. Her favorite places are those she chose to live in: Paris, Greece, San Francisco.

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33 Responses

  1. diapersinparadise
    | Reply

    I always enjoy reading your stories, Mei! They are so vibrant, and give such great context to your travels. We just traveled to Vietnam right before all the craziness of 2020 started. I had so many places I wanted to visit and limited time (and a 3 and 1 year old with me), so I was really nervous that I wouldn’t feel like the Halong Bay cruise was a good use of our time. We did 3-day-2-night. But I loved every minute of it – especially the stunning sunrises! It is really like nowhere else in the world. I’m glad that you loved it as well!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you so much! 🙂 You did good to stay in Halong for 2 nights. When we go back for another visit, we will certainly also stay longer.

  2. Laura
    | Reply

    You’re such an eloquent storyteller! You’r family’s past and association with Fleeing Vietnam made it all the more interesting. I felt like I was right there in Halong Bay with you. I visited about 10 years ago but unfortunately only for a day. This January though I had the opportunity to spend the night aboard a boat in Lan Ha Bay, which is equally photogenic. What luck you had that the weather cleared up!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you, Laura! ☺️ I have never heard of Lan Ha Bay, so I googled it and it looks gorgeous! When we visit Vietnam again, I’ll make sure to spend a few days in this bay!

  3. Maggie
    | Reply

    I loved reading this! I could totally hear the excitement of the guide as he was telling you about the new and upcoming highway haha. And how amazing that your parents were boat people! My dad’s coworker was also a boat person and her story is just incredible – I have so much respect for what those people endured and triumphed over. And the flag idea is so fun – I wish more tour companies did that! Though as an American I can’t relate to anyone ever mixing up my flag lol.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you, Maggie! Yes, our local guide in Hanoi and Halong was very excited about the new highway! 😅 And yes, there are a lot of Vietnamese boat people in the USA. Many of my relatives are there, and each of them has experienced incredible things back then…

  4. Indrani
    | Reply

    I can imagine and understand your fears for ocean… travel experiences help us overcome them. Ha ha sounds interesting that they were not prepared with flag for Luxembourg. That is a beautiful sunset capture.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Sometimes we wonder if they have a Luxembourgish flag made of fabric now… 😄

  5. Renee
    | Reply

    What an adventure brought to life by your story telling! It’s amazing how your family’s experience has somewhat been passed onto you. However, you conquered it! The caves and grottos sound amazing and I too, move past those who are taking selfies to enjoy what it is you are actually there to see.

  6. ansh997x
    | Reply

    Your narrative posts are so heartwarming to read as they take me to that place in spirit. Since I was plannign to travel to Vietnam in March before everything got cancelled, I liked reading it more and imagined myself in that scenario.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you! I really hope you’ll get to visit Vietnam soon! If not this year then in 2021! 😊

  7. josypheen
    | Reply

    As always, I love your posts Mei! I didn’t realize that your parents were boat people – I can totally see why they would not be keen for you to go on a cruise, but as cruises go, this does sound delightful! I love that they printed your flag off especially for you, and that you managed to wake up early enough to see that beautiful sunrise. I wonder if you could both appreciate this beauty even more because it was raining so hard when you first arrived- so you got to see the contrast!?

    p.s. Naughty French tourists jumping the queue. I guess I am stereotypically English as that kind of behaviour really stresses me out!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you, Josypheen! Very glad that you like my stories. ☺️ And you are right: we definitely appreciated the whole experience even more because of the bas weather upon our arrival! It was a very nice surprise when the sky cleared up. 😊

  8. Sandy N Vyjay
    | Reply

    Halong Bay is such an iconic place. It looks so surreal when bathed in the golden rays of the rising sun. It must have been really a divine experience waking up to such a morning.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Yes it was a quite unique experience to see such a sunrise in Halong Bay!

  9. Thank you for sharing! I love reading your narrative posts as they make me feel a connection to places, even if I haven’t visited! I chose to spend an extra day in Hanoi instead of visiting Halong Bay, but I really want to go back! My wife didn’t join when I visited Vietnam, so I am dreaming of when we can go together!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you, Courtney! I’m glad you like my stories. ☺️ I understand why you chose to spend more time in Hanoi instead of heading to Halong Bay, as there are a lot to see and do in Hanoi! And Halong Bay is quite romantic, so better to return to experience it with your wife. 🥰

  10. The Spicy Travel Girl
    | Reply

    So beautiful! Halong Bay has been on my bucket list since I was little. Looks like you guys had quite some fun.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      We had a good time in Halong Bay, yes! Hope you’ll get to visit it someday! 😉

  11. Kez
    | Reply

    I see you somewhat conquered your fear of staying on water. It’s so funny that they weren’t sure about your flag! I’m used to people not really knowing my flag, or that my region has it’s own flag!

  12. Rhonda Albom
    | Reply

    I wish i had time to take an overnight in Halong Bay. However, the day cruise I took was spectacular and I had great luck in that the fishing village and the caves were pretty empty when we showed up.

  13. Jeremy
    | Reply

    I recently travelled to Halong bay, and confirm the drive from Hanoi is just abit over 2 hours now ! Love your story telling, especially the details like the rainbow colour umbrella ! Nice that you got to ride on the bamboo boats and row it yourself ! It was certainly beautiful right ?! I will definitely return again ! =)

    • Desiree C
      | Reply

      I was planning to ask about an update on the travel. Thanks for sharing!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you, Jeremy! I’m glad you like my story telling. 😊 In fact, we didn’t row the bamboo boat ourselves, it was the elderly lady who did it.

  14. Sarah
    | Reply

    Oh wow, your experience at Halong Bay sounds wonderful, this is how we would like to experience it one day! Thank you for sharing about your families very hard time after fleeing Vietnam, I can’t even imagine what that would have been like, being on that kind of boat for 8 months – I can see why they didn’t like the thought of being on a boat after that. At the same time, it is good to hear you didn’t let their fears stop you from spending the night on the boat and having this amazing time. I would definitely try and wake up to watch sunrise as it sounds like the perfect way to start the day 🙂

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you, Sarah! Yes, it was very hard for my family and they (especially my parents) don’t like to thank back at those times… But when I showed our photos and videos of Halong Bay to my mom, she even considered visiting and spending a night there, especially to watch the sunrise! 😊 I hope you’ll have a great experience too when you visit Halong someday!

  15. Wonderful photos. We had to postpone our trip to Vietnam to…hopefully…next year. I look so forward to spending a few days (possibly 3) in Halong Bay.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Vietnam is wonderful! We hope you’ll get to visit next year! And yes, definitely spend 2-3 days in Halong Bay!

  16. samantha kren
    | Reply

    Looks like quite the adventure to see this beautiful spot. I love how every table on the boat gets a flag, being from the Netherlands I can understand how easily people mix up the flags haha!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Has anyone ever handed you a Luxembourgish flag instead of a Dutch one?

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