The beautiful Loire Valley, with its romantic chateaus, the flowing river and the picturesque countryside.
The legend behind Ha Long Bay is one of dragons descending from heaven to help Vietnam fight its invaders. The gigantic limestone karsts were created by the dragons for protection and eventually the dragons decided to live peacefully in the Bay of descending dragons. Dragons or not, Ha Long is a fairytale place. Thousands of limestone karsts rise dramatically from the ocean along the eastern coast of Quang Ninh Province. Caves, lakes and beaches, hollow islands, floating villages and pearl farms are all embraced by the 120 km coastline of over a thousand islets.
A three-hour drive, heading east from Hanoi, brought us to Tan Chau Island from where we boarded our luxury cruise junk which was our home for the next couple of days. A jacuzzi in the cabin, a spa on board and the promise of wonderful Vietnamese food were the perfect start to exploring the bay.
Passing many islets and beaches, our boat anchored near the Dark and Bright Cave. We hopped on to the tender boats and made our way to the floating village from where we could either kayak or get on to local bamboo boats to reach the cave. (Yes, we experienced many kinds of boats!)
I chose to get into a bamboo boat, deftly steered by a wisp of a girl, with her vertical oars.
We floated along the bay, discovering dramatic landscape around every bend, until we reached the Dark and Bright Cave. The low-slung boat seemed to glide effortlessly into the cave as darkness enveloped us and stalactites hung close to our heads.
Back on the boat, it was time to cruise in Lan Ha Bay and explore more caves and islands, some of them being Tien Ong Cave, Trong Cave, and the biggest of them all – the Sung Sot Cave.
A short steep walk up the hill brought us to the entrance of Sung Sot Cave. It was beautifully lit with very interesting rock formations, but I have to say I could not see the imaginary monkey or the Buddha that were pointed out to us!
The cave is also said to have been home to the ancient people of the region. Cool and interesting and a bit of a workout. Great views of the Bo Hon bay from a height – so do not forget your selfie-sticks!
We went on to explore some pearl farms and beaches. Many dot the area and you can choose where to relax, have a beer, or take a dip in the sea. I tried my hand at making traditional Vietnamese rice paper spring rolls at the cooking demo and class on board the ship. It is not easy to roll ultra-thin rice paper, but I managed to pass and even got a certificate!
Then it was time to don a bright red Vietnamese Ao Dai (their traditional costume) and celebrate with a glass of wine.
There was one last indulgence left – pearls! We stopped at Halong Pearls where they explain and demonstrate how these beauties are farmed. I could not resist handling a long strand of Akoya pearls; when held vertically, it was taller than I am!
There are many more beautiful islands and beaches on the less-frequented routes in Ha Long, which has twice been declared a World Heritage Site. I loved my first visit to mystical and magical Ha Long and am waiting to go back. Yes, it’s certainly on my ‘visit again’ list!
I have found time to travel to many countries and live in 2 countries (3 if Scotland ever does becomes one!) and 6 cities during my career in finance. I was a diplomat first and started in the Indian Foreign Service with my first posting being Paris – The City of Light. And began my lifelong love of travel and coffee there! An MBA followed and I’ve been in finance since.