Cruise on Halong Bay, Vietnam
When it comes to weekend getaways, you just can't beat flopping around on the deck of a junk in Halong bay, says Duc Hanh.
At 11.30 am, the sun is high in the sky and burning bright. At the pier countless wooden junks, sailboats, speedboats and tiny bamboo boats bob around. While tour guides try to organise how to get their groups on board, we sit with our bags in hand, ready to test out our sea legs.
"Which one is ours?" says a fellow traveler on my tour a tad impatiently.
After a four-hour-stint in the van from Hanoi, everybody is understandably itching to kick back and feel the sea breeze on board.
Just then a speedboat arrives with a flourish and we pile on board before zooming off to the Indochina Sail, a large, handsome junk that the captain proudly announces is 40 metres long and 8.5 meters wide - and indeed it seems a fine, seaworthy vessel to me.
In my time I've been on board a few of the bay's shabbier junks. It is one point worth making: when it comes to visiting Halong Bay it's worth treating yourself. Thankfully there's more than a few classy junks to choose from these days.
Walking around on board the Indochina Sail, I discover a restaurant, the Indochina Sail Bar, a gift shop and even a library. Guests can also avail of binoculars, snorkeling equipment or top-of-the-line Canadian made kayaks.
With a grand view ahead, I tentatively start with the binoculars. Most of my fellow travellers are content to flop around the deck, sipping drinks, surveying the scene or catching a bit of sun. A trip to Halong is first and foremost about relaxing!
Sun-shy, I stretch out on a lie-low on the more shaded lower deck and listen to the buffeting breeze and the sound of the boat chopping through the waves. Time passes and I happily doze a little in the salty air.
However, a call for lunch stirs me right out of my light slumber. A five-course lunch is devoured by the hungry guests. We hadn't even worked up an appetite.
Afterwards, I fight the urge to have a siesta and head out onto the deck as the boat floats into Bai Tu Long Bay. We drop anchor at Soi Sim island, famed for its rose myrtle brush.
The island sits in clear, blue waters and is also home to white sandy beaches. A member of the crew asks if anyone wants to swim but we're already in our trunks and bathing suits ready to dive in. Afterwards, we head ashore and climb to the summit of the island which offers yet another idyllic setting. Although Halong is a large area with over 1,900 limestone islets and a 120-km coastline, when you get in amongst the islets it seems more intimate than grand.
The random scattering of islets meant the bay had its defensive advantages in the past. On three occasions in the labyrinth of channels near the islands the Vietnamese army stopped the Chinese from landing. Also in 1288 General Tran Hung Dao stopped Mongol ships from sailing up the nearby Bach Dang River by placing steel-tipped wooden stakes at high tide, sinking the Mongol Kublai Khan's fleet. Of course, the legend is that a slew of dragons spat out jewels and jade into the sea. These jewels turned into the islands and islets that are dotted around the bay, which could be linked together to form barriers against would-be invaders.
It's easy to see why residents of Halong would have conjured up such legends to explain the supreme scenery.
Understandably, after our mini-hike a thirst is upon the travelling party! We clamber back on board for a few sundowners with beers and cocktails all round. The sun drops behind the surrounding islands as we sit in the dwindling twilight.
Heading back to my cabin to shower and change for dinner, I'm fairly surprised to discover a royal costume laid out for me. A card reads: "For tonight's Royal banquet."
Slightly tipsy, I happily oblige. It's only when I arrive up on deck for the BBQ dinner I realise that the costume is a rather baggy and my hat fairly cumbersome, still I manage to move around and fill my plate. A Japanese tourist, Megumi Katsu is more taken by her new look - "This is the most fun I have had on my holidays yet!"
At night in the bay is magical. A canopy of glittering stars above us, a refreshing coolness in the air - it is pure bliss just to sit around with the other travelers, your friends or partner. Conversation is optional.
Chris Wedlake and his wife, both looking positively regal, are on their honeymoon. "It's an earthly paradise for a couple of newly weds!" So smitten with Halong, he and his wife says they'd come back for their anniversary every year if they could.
Traditional Vietnamese melodies hang in the air. The boat gently rocks. A few of the staff invite guests to fish for cuttlefish. But my eyes are heavy and I slip away to my cabin promising myself I'll rise with the dawn - someone mentions morning tai chi exercises on the top deck and I nod in enthusiastic agreement.
But when I wake the sun is already up. I hear the voices of vendors who have rowed up to our junk to sell snacks, seafood, souvenirs and cigarettes. I stumble upstairs and discover guests still there from the night before - each one chose to sleep on deck in the open air rather than spending the night in their cabin.
A smell of fresh coffee is in the air as the boat pulls away; the crew informs us of our itinerary for the morning, but all of the passengers just reply with sleepy smiles. We are already under Halong Bay's spell. No one really minds where we go next, anyway, you can't take a wrong turn while cruising in Halong Bay.
Recommended vessels for Halong cruises
The Indochina Sails - 04 2434671, firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.indochinasails.com/
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