Hạ Long, Vietnam (September 2014)
On the day of Dad’s birthday during a surprise trip to Vietnam I arranged, we took a day tour to Hạ Long Bay. And let me tell you, that this excursion easily became the highlight of our trip. To this very day, I deem Hạ Long Bay as one of the most magical places I’ve ever seen. It was about a three-hour-drive from Hanoi, with a stop in between, but as we inched our way closer and closer to where all the ferries were waiting, I knew we were in for quite a trip. As we got on the ferry, the excursion began with buffet lunch, which I, unfortunately, did not get to take any photos of.Right after, our tour guide told us that we were approaching a couple of islands and that we should go to the upper deck to get a better view. As we sailed through, I was taken aback by how everything was so picturesque and that the islands seemed to have been perfectly placed by the hand of God.As we sailed closer to some of the islands, I was even more mesmerized by how stunning they were up-close. Sailing through Hạ Long Bay and its many, many islands felt like a dream that you wouldn’t want to wake up from.Everyone on the deck seemed to have been silenced by the beauty all around, as we were introduced to some of the islands we passed. After about half an hour of cruising through, we stopped by a houseboat, which was the jump-off point for the wooden boat tour. Given that the caves leading to the lakes inside the islands were too small for the ferry to pass through, we had to get on a small wooden boat, which carried about four of us; five, if you include the strong Vietnamese man carrying the weight of the whole boat as he paddled along. As we rowed through a cave into a lake enclosed by this limestone island with greeneries all around, I was stunned. Everything seemed so peaceful, so serene, so pure.In such serenity, there was also some kind of mystery, as we wondered what swam through the waters below us or what animals hid in these islands.
Just like that, my Dad and I felt so small. What surrounded us seemed to be so grand, that all one could do is look up and soak in all the beauty and the mystery it goes hand-in-hand with. Though it drizzled a bit, the sky also seemed to be so pristine.Sailing out of the cave, it seemed like we were in a different world, given how exquisite our surroundings were; though the natural beauty we were surrounded by made quite a mark, that wasn’t what mainly struck a chord in my heart.We were told that the small houseboat we saw earlier used to be a school, and that there used to be more houseboats in that area, owned by a number of families whose main livelihood was fishing. Just two or three years before, the government had to relocate these families as this area was decided upon to be completely geared towards tourism. Many families were reluctant given that this was the home that they, for so long, lived in and loved; they had been part of a community and were accustomed to a way of living that they, sadly, had to say goodbye to. Most of the men in the communities that resided in these waters now man wooden boats, which take the tourists through the islands and its enclosed lakes. As I looked back to the Vietnamese man who was rowing our boat, he told us that he was one of those who used to live on these waters.
My heart broke. He gave out a small, sweet smile, but I felt how painful it must’ve been to accept all these changes at once. Knowing that their salary was only so much, at the end of the excursion, we handed him a tip, by which he reciprocated with one of the sweetest smiles I have ever seen and one of the most sincerest thank-you’s I have ever heard.As we hopped back onto the ferry, we saw more of God’s beautiful creation. Cruising through made us feel like we were such tiny people in a big, humbling world.
Finally, we reached the entrance to Thien Cung, widely known as the Heavenly Cave, for reasons you’ll see in the photos below. Prior to going into the cave, I knew we were in for an incredible sight, but it was far more spectacular than I ever imagined. Though not obviously in the photos, this cave is way more massive than exhibited; if you look closely, you’ll see some stairs, which will give you a comparison of how vast this cave is – and colorful, at that. Upon exiting the cave, we were, once again, wowed by the scenery that was presented to us. Since this marked the end of the cruise, it was a bittersweet farewell to the beautiful islands that graced us with their presence. Surely, it won’t be our last trip, since we have yet to do an overnight cruise through these waters. One of the most interesting stopovers I’ve done to date is this art gallery we looked into before heading straight to Hạ Long Bay. At first glimpse, I wanted to bring everything home, and the fact that these pieces were crafted by PWDs made it even more incredible to appreciate. At the end of the day, my Dad and I couldn’t help but gush over this incredible excursion and how it was worth every penny and second we spared. So if you’re planning a trip to the Vietnamese capital and still deciding if it’s worth spending a day travelling to Hạ Long Bay, I say, go for it and you definitely won’t regret it!