IT WAS early morning and there was a mist in the air, but that just added to the magic as we entered the wonderland that is Halong Bay.
I first came here 17 years ago and then, like now, you sense this is a special place. The Vietnamese tell a story of a dragon. The legend says the dragon in defense of the people spat jewels into the bay to keep away invaders, each turned into one of the 2,000 islands that dot the picturesque bay.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the limestone islands hold something quite special; caves that you can enter to find an underground world of grottos, some quite huge.
Our cruise ship made its way around the stunning islands and the bays placid waters. Last time I was here I hired a junk with its colourful sails and spent the night out on the bay. The junks are made of teak wood and provide luxury accommodation and a grand dining experience.
Small fishing boats ply their trade and many fishermen live on the bay’s floating villages. These are permanent homes and children are even schooled here. They have their own floating markets and it’s said that many residents seldom go ashore; but moves are afoot to change this. The government is concerned the children are not getting a proper education and so the floating villages may soon be a thing of the past.
Moving away from the bay, Halong has a lot to offer inland including incredible temples and the chance to visit a local family and see how they live. Many are farmers but the majority seem to depend on tourism.
Visiting a local market, forget the watches and tee shirts, this was the real thing. Locals could drop in on the way home and buy all they needed for the evening meal; frogs, chickens alive or ready to cook, pork pies, all manner of vegetables, fish still alive, crabs and things that I had never seen before but were obviously quite edible.
The Vietnamese do eat things we don’t, including spiders. Cooked they still look odd with the legs disappearing into someone’s mouth, and they have two types of dogs those kept as pets to guard the home and those kept for the pot.
The people are really friendly and if you are shopping in the markets you can get some incredible buys, just keep in mind that you can get down to haggling over a few cents but is it worth it, after all in any transaction everyone needs to be a winner.
Our cruise ship left Halong Bay and made its way to Hong Kong, my final port. Just one day there but there is lots to see and do. Held by the British from 1841, Hong Kong grew to be a major trading port and was handed back to China in 1997. It still remains a free port with its own economic independence that will last for the next 50 years.
Things to do include riding the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbour. The ferry has been running since 1898 and it’s a great experience, and of a night you can witness the harbour’s light show.
You can also climb Victoria Peak on the peak tram. Cables allow it to traverse incredible steep slopes to the top.
Take time to savour the food, it’s mouth-watering. Visit one of the many markets including the ladies market and the night market or if you want to shop for the top designer goods, then visit Harbour City. With 450 shops and entertainment zones it’s Hong Kong’s biggest shopping mall.
I would like to thank the staff on my cruise ship, the Holland America’s Volendam. Nothing was too much trouble and they really make you feel right at home. The food was excellent and over all a great experience.
Until next time,