Early summer on Vietnam’s Boi Thu Long Bay and the day starts with a sultry, slow burn as sea and sky transform into an ethereal watercolour in shades of palest chalk to craggy granite. From our balcony off the spacious President’s Suite aboard the “Victory Star”, a 32-cabin classic cruising boat, we’re gliding across its glassy surface through a sculptural seascape of limestone monolithic islands whose hidden coves could be the perfect backdrop for the next Johnny Depp ‘Pirates’ movie.
Ha Long Bay in Vietnam’s northern Quang Ninh Province has been added to many bucket lists but its postcard-perfect vistas amidst the Gulf of Tonkin’s dense cluster of 1600 islands is both a blessing and a curse. “Tourism to this UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site has boomed. There are currently more than 500 cruise boats plying Ha Long Bay each day including 200 remaining overnight and this marine invasion is placing it under stress,” says Dario, Victory Star’s cruise director. To avoid the crowds, our course is to the less crowded Boi Thu Long Bay, a good decision if you want to experience the area’s splendid isolation and majestic beauty.
The motor hums quietly and through the picture windows, each passing outcrop is shadowed by another broken chain of rugged islets, unfolding a repetitive pattern of forested limestone peaks set in a jade sea. Other cruise boats glide silently between rocky islands, appearing and disappearing like mirages as we sit down for lunch, a delicate mix of local produce and fresh seafood.
Most international visitors only spend one night on board and the cruise program is obviously designed to maximise a 24-hour seagoing experience. Tenders convey us to a pocket handkerchief beach where we kayak close to the edge of the dramatically drowned landscape and visit Thien Canh Son limestone cave. Back on board, there’s just time for a restorative massage before a lesson in making Vietnamese spring rolls, dinner and drinks. Apart from our group of ten, the other guests are French and cosmopolitan conversation swirls around the upper deck as the Cosmopolitans flow! Sunrise seeps through the cabin around 5.30 and by 6.30, we’re on deck for a serious Tai Chi class – well the instructor is serious, the participants less so – followed by a light breakfast.
Marshalled into a small armada of bamboo tour boats, we’re rowed to Vung Vieng floating village where one of Ha Long’s eleven pearl farms, supported by Japanese investment, has been established. The rhythmic pull of the oars is the only sound as we pass ancient limestone formations created millennia ago. Warm breezes brush the skin and birds of prey ride the thermals gliding effortlessly above. As combative currents battle for space thrusting powerfully against limestone walls, a natural arched gateway looms ahead providing a dramatic view to the of deep water harbour beyond and a flotilla of container ships. Hugging the protective arms of rocky islets, we turn and weave through the water to the pearl farm passing its neatly corralled oyster beds. Owning no land, the people of Vung Vieng fish and live on the water. However, declining water quality through marine over-cultivation and general pollution is causing problems and several hundred residents have been relocated.
A cluster of wooden houses appear on floating platforms festooned with suburban domestic details – beaten rugs hang over balconies, washing dries under verandas – while Vietnamese flags flutter on colourful longboats. It’s a busy and popular stop for tourists and a great opportunity to buy exquisitely crafted pearl jewellery straight from the source.
Back to the bus….
Alighting at the embarkation town of Hon Gai, it’s a 3.5 hour bus ride back to Ha Noi but by 2022, the government plans to open a high speed rail connection linking Ha Noi to Ha Long in an estimated 1hr 40m. Travelling back on Highway 1, to one side a man drives his buffalo through a patchwork of rice fields set between a neat grid of graves. On the other, Samsung has built one of its largest factories in the world and the giant FoxConn is making Canon products in a sprawling manufacturing plant the size of a suburb. Like the farmer vs the factories, life is rapidly changing and complicated and while it’s clear that tourism will continue in overdrive in Ha Long, it’ll be interesting to see what actions will be taken to protect the lasting legacy of the region’s natural heritage and beauty.
Tags: Boi Thu Long Ba, Boi Thu Long Bay, cosmopolitan, cruising, cruising boat, cruising vietnam, food, Gulf of Tonkin, Ha Long Bay, limestone cave., limestone monolithic islands, limestone walls, pearl fam, pearls, Presidential Suite, Quang Ninh Province, seagoing experience, Tai Chi class, Thien Canh Son, touring vietnam, UNESCO-listed World Heritage, Victory Star, Vietnam, vietnam tours, Vietnamese spring rolls, vietnameses food, Vung Vieng floating village, water village, ww.2onthewing.com, www.asiaunbound.com