The absolute highlight of my trip to Viet Nam was spending 2 days on a Chinese junk in Ha Long Bay. This area is designated as an UNESCO World Heritage site and has been nominated as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World, as well as the 8th Wonder of the World. Ha Long Bay is simply stunning. There are more than 1900 islands, mostly made from limestone, emerging hundreds of feet high from the sea, exploding in spectacular glory.
Most of the islands are uninhabitable and contain caves and lakes. The Vietnamese government prohibits occupation of the islands, but you will find floating fishing villages near some of the larger islands. Some fishing villages raise pigs, so it's sort of weird to see a floating structure with a pig on it. Other villagers eke out a living by rowing around the waters to sell supplies to visitors on junks.
The water is serene, and even though we were warned to wear warm clothing, it wasn't really cold in December and I didn't need my jacket. Our boat held 9 cabins, which didn't leave room for our guide, so he had to spend the night on some other boat.
When we arrived, we were promptly served lunch on the junk in a formal dining room. Giant shrimp cocktails, clams in juice, fish in tomato sauce, salads, spring rolls, fresh fruit and custards, yum. The first deck contained the kitchen, a dining room and a bridge where passengers could shoot photos or simply sit around and enjoy cocktails and the view. The bottom deck had cabins with windows, and the walls, floors and ceilings were covered with glossy wood.
Here are some photos of Ha Long Bay:
This is the view after leaving the harbor. It was a party cloudy day in early December, but I was still able to capture the magnificence of the limestone islands.
Our boat was the Huong Hai junk, very similar to the junk you can see in the distance here. The bay is so huge that you can float along and not spot any other boats until you reach a harbor.
This is a protected area where many boats dock, just around the corner from a floating fishing village. We stopped here to tour Sung Sot, which is nicknamed Surprise Cave.
OK, the colors are caused by reflections from colored lights set up around the cave, but isn't this spectacular? There is also a lake inside Sung Sot. It contains several gigantic chambers.
This makes you feel like you are in another world. There are crystals, rock formations, stalagmites and stalactites. The stalactites grow from the top and the stalagmites form from the bottom, and are generally found in caves with limestone.
Isn't this like being on Mars? There were a lot of tourists in Surprise Cave when we were there, many with foreign-speaking guides who pointed out images in the limestone. Tons of tourists crowded the steps to each new chamber. But most of the travel destinations in the world are flooded with tourists; it doesn't matter where you go, you end up standing in line.
My husband said since I snapped this vendor's photo, I had to buy something from her. I didn't. I mean, what am I going to do with a box of Ritz crackers? But tourists must buy them or she wouldn't stock them.
Photos: Elizabeth Weintraub