Spectacular karst scenery in tranquil waters and a traditional way of life harvesting the seas.
We were very excited to be travelling to Ha Long by sea plane, we'd never flown in one! Our luggage was being taken separately by car as there is very limited space on the sea plane and we were collected after an early breakfast and taken to the domestic airport. The girl checking in for the sea plane flight arrived with a rolled up piece of carpet to put in front of the desk and a bowl of roses.
We were on the flight with just one other couple so we all got seats with excellent views though we had to be spaced in the cabin to balance the weight. The pilot was very jovial and instilled confidence.
We took off quickly as some VIP was arriving and the airport was due to be closed soon. Up through a cloud layer and then on our way. It was cloudy most of the way and we had to circle in a holding pattern for 15 minutes towards the end because of military activity in the area but then we descended through the cloud and had a fantastic 15 minute flight down the coast over the bays strewn with thousands of limestone karsts.
The scenery is just magnificent, rank after rank of karsts jutting out of the turquoise green ocean along the coast as far as the eye can see, receding into the bright hazy distance.
Ha Long translates as "where the dragon descended into the sea". Legend has it that a charging dragon flew down from the mountains, its flailing tail whipping up the ground, and when it finally plunged into the sea the area filled with water leaving only the tops of the mountains above water forming thousands of islands.
As we approached Ha Long we passed over floating villages, fishermen and many flat structures on the water which we later discovered are oyster beds for the important pearl industry.
More and more boats and container ships began to appear, Ha Long Bay itself looked very crowded with shipping.
We landed on water which was an amazing experience then quite fast over the water and onto land where our guide and driver were waiting.
Before going to the boat we were taken for a quick visit to see how the cultivated pearl industry works. We were shown how a seed is put into an oyster and how a pearl is removed - all by hand of course. There was also a huge show room of pearl jewellery but it's not something I'm keen on.
A short car ride to the harbour where we were left in the capable hands of the Indochina Sails people - more icy towels and drinks and then on to a tender to the junk.
Sadly the Department of Transport, in an effort to smarten up the appearance of Ha Long Bay, decreed that all boats must be painted white which means that much of the character of the traditional wooden junks has been lost. Unfortunately the white paint is not weathering well and many boats look shabby.
This was not the case with our Indochina Sails traditional junk though - it was pristine. And, though the exterior was painted white, inside the wood gleamed.
We had a lovely cabin with its own bathroom and balcony and settled in for three days (2 nights) of cruising the waters of the bays.
Later a terrific lunch was served with excellent chicken and mushroom soup, spicy spring rolls, traditional salads, deep fried squid, excellent crab served in its shell and prawns.
All the while we had been steadily cruising away from crowded Ha Long Bay heading into Bai Tu Long Bay. Here there is virtually no tourist infrastructure and it is must less crowded - we left the vast majority of vessels behind. The opportunity to sail into less crowded bays was the main reason we had chosen Indochina Sails.
It was cloudy but visibility was excellent and it was warm. We sat on deck and watched the wonderful scenery unfold around us, making good use of the cameras.
Late in the afternoon a tender took us out to the floating village of Cua Van. Later one of the crew members showed me the route we had taken today - roughly east and south-east through Bai Tu Long Bay then south and south-west to Cua Van.
We transferred to a traditional bamboo boat, a sampan, manned by one of the villagers and were taken around the village. It did feel a little intrusive but it was interesting to see how the people lived, their accommodation looked quite sparse. The inhabitants, of course, make a living by fishing and live on the water year round.
We returned to the junk which cruised for a while before mooring up.
Out on deck we could see two or three other junks moored nearby - they were all, I think, Indochina Sails boats.
We had a very good dinner - I was particularly enjoying the Ha Long Bay prawns which were so very fresh and large! Afterwards we tried our hand at fishing for squid from the side of the boat, equipment was just a simple line on the end of a pole, the water illuminated by a bright lamp, but we caught nothing.
We slept like logs.
We were up early to see the dawn. It was still a bit cloudy but so peaceful.
We joined in the morning Tai Chi on deck led by a lovely girl, a very peaceful way to start the day. The boat was cast off and started to move.
After a good shower a hearty breakfast - though I personally didn't take advantage of the wide variety of cooked-to-order dishes!
It was lovely to sit by the window and watch the wonderful scenery drift by as we ate.
While the boat cruised toward Hang Sung Sot cave system we stayed on deck watching the local fishermen in their various boats and enjoying the scenery.
As we got closer more junks appeared on the scene until, at the cave itself, there were quite a few, the most we'd seen by a long way since leaving Ha Long.
Around 9 we were taken in a small boat to the karst to visit the cave - also known as Surprise Cave.
The cave system is impressive but I could have done without the garish coloured lighting.
As always various rock formations are given names, but the grandeur of the caves, especially when there are very few people there, is quite something. We went on ahead of the main group from the boat so that we could experience the caves in solitude.
On our way back to the boat we passed a small waterborne market, very interesting. The produce was mostly fish and other seafood, kept fresh in baskets immersed in the water.
We were thoroughly enjoying our time sailing the bays.
After returning from the cave we continued sailing, our destination this time was "Bat" Cave an arch of rock low over the water populated by bats and leading to a secluded cove.
We were taken to a dock where we boarded a sampan and were rowed to the cave - it's also possible to go by kayak.
We returned to the junk and another excellent lunch - soup, more fabulous grilled prawns, chicken and cashews - while we continued to sail through the karsts.
Mid-afternoon we were taken to visit a pearl village.
It was quite a labour-intensive operation. Many baskets of oysters were immersed in the water, all having a seed pearl implanted into the ovary - a rather brutal process. The workers here mostly had rather dirty jobs, but they were chatting and laughing among themselves.
Back to the boat for more sailing. The scenery had been magnificent ever since we left Ha Long. Today someone saw a snake in the water and we saw a black monkey with a red rump scampering along one of the karsts and quite a few goats.
We had aperitifs on the deck before dinner and the staff were barbecuing and offered us freshly barbecued prawns - gorgeous as usual. Dinner was terrific: barbecued fish, squid, prawns, chicken wings, pork ribs and soft shell crab, corn and lots of salads, noodles and dipping sauces.
Afterwards we went back up on deck and lay on loungers under a pitch black sky in a warm breeze. There were about a dozen lit-up boats against the barely visible karsts, our junk swaying back and forth in the current.
We slept too late for Tai Chi today and it had rained overnight but the sun was shining when we woke. At 7:30 we departed on the tender for Titov Island. There were about 50 other boats around - early this morning we had cruised back into the most popular part of Ha Long Bay.
We were the first to arrive on the island, though, and at 7:45 started to climb the 420 steep steps to the top. It took about 15 minutes with a couple of breathers and worth it for the views. Back down some people went swimming before we returned to the boat for showers and a good breakfast and cruising back to Ha Long city which we reached at about 11.
We were sorry to leave the boat, we had so enjoyed it, but we had exciting things to look forward to - next stop Sapa!