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The Silk Route - World Travel: Near Ha Long, Vietnam
americas asia & far east africa & middle east europe

Vietnam: Bai Tu Long & Ha Long Bays
November 2015

Seaplane to Ha Long Bai Tu Long Bay Cua Van Floating Village
Hang Sung Sot Cave
Bat Cave & Pearl Village Titov Island
sea plane to Halong

 

Spectacular karst scenery in tranquil waters and a traditional way of life harvesting the seas.

 

Seaplane to Ha Long

sea plane to Ha Long
The sea plane at Hanoi.

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.

sea plane to Ha Long
Toward the coast huge areas of land were flooded.

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.

sea plane to Ha Long

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.

sea plane to Ha Long
sea plane to Ha Long
sea plane to Ha Long
sea plane to Ha Long



sea plane to Ha Long

 

sea plane to Ha Long

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.

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sea plane to Ha Long

sea plane to Ha Long
Pearl farms near Ha Long.
sea plane to Ha Long
A floating village.
sea plane to Ha Long
Fishermen.


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.

sea plane to Ha Long
sea plane to Ha Long
Closer to Ha Long more and more shipping appeared.




sea plane to Ha Long

 

sea plane to Ha Long
Approaching Ha Long.

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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.

 

cultivated pearls Ha Long
Working on a pearl oyster.

 

 

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.

 

Bai Tu Long Bay

cultivated pearls Ha Long
Local people provide services for the tourist boats while living on their own boats.

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.

Bai Tu Long Bay
Sailing into Bai Tu Long Bay.

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.

Indochina Sails
Our cabin.

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.

Bai Tu Long Bay
Bai Tu Long Bay

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.

Bai Tu Long Bay
 Bai Tu Long Bay

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.

Bai Tu Long Bay
Bai Tu Long Bay
A couple fishing, she rowing, he setting the nets.
Bai Tu Long Bay
Bai Tu Long Bay
Bai Tu Long Bay

 

Cua Van Floating Village

Cua Van Floating Village

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.

Cua Van Floating Village
The people seem to use boats and platforms for living space.
Cua Van Floating Village
Cua Van Floating Village

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.

Cua Van Floating Village
Fishing vessels ranged in size from small boats operated by one or two people to quite large boats with wooden superstructure for nets.

Cua Van Floating Village
Cua Van Floating Village

 




Cua Van Floating Village
Kayaks waiting for clients.
Cua Van Floating Village
Cua Van Floating Village
Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay

 

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.

 

Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay
Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay

 

Hang Sung Sot Cave

Indochina Sails Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay
Pre-dawn light.

 

 

We were up early to see the dawn. It was still a bit cloudy but so peaceful.

Indochina Sails Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay
Indochina Sails Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay
Indochina Sails Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay
Indochina Sails Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay
Indochina Sails Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay

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.

Indochina Sails
Breakfast!

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.

Indochina Sails Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay
Indochina Sails Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay
Indochina Sails Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay

 

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.

Indochina Sails Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay
View from the entrance to Hang Sung Sot.


Hang Sung Sot cave

The cave system is impressive but I could have done without the garish coloured lighting.

Hang Sung Sot cave
Hang Sung Sot cave
Hang Sung Sot cave
Hang Sung Sot cave

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.

Hang Sung Sot cave
Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay floating market
Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay floating market

 

 

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.

Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay floating market

 

Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay floating market
Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay floating market

Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay floating market

 

Bat Cave & Pearl Village

Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay
Traditional woven bamboo basket boat.

We were thoroughly enjoying our time sailing the bays.

Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay
Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay
Bat Cave

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.

Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay
Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay
Inside Bat Cave.
Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay
Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay

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.

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Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay
Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay


Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay
Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay

 

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.

Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay
Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay

Mid-afternoon we were taken to visit a pearl village.

Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay
Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay

 

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.

Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay
Baskets of oysters are suspended from the wooden grid.
Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay

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.

Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay

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.

 

Titov Island

Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay
Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay

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.

Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay
View from top of Titov Island

We were sorry to leave the boat, we had so enjoyed it, but we had exciting things to look forward to - next stop Sapa!

Ha Long Bay Bai Tu Long Bay