Ha Long Bay in North Vietnam is a World Heritage site and was recently selected as one of the seven new natural wonders of the world. There are nearly two thousand limestone islands in the 600 square miles of the bay. They are what are called karsts, tectonic uplifts of what was formerly sedimentary rock. From the look of the layers, some of that uplift was nearly vertical. Erosion by wind and water has then shaped these rocks into strange outcroppings; some looking like Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio, some looking like the ‘flowerpots’ of the Bruce Peninsula.

Today we took a cruise out into Ha Lan Bay, off the southern coast of Cat Ba island where we are staying, and around to the east and north of the island into Ha Long Bay itself. We shared the cruise with a dozen others, all young backpackers, from San Francisco, Vancouver, England, India and Germany. It was a wondrous journey, and pictures simply do not do the site justice. These scenic wonders spring from the water in dazzling variety; some looking like humpbacked dragons – ha long means descending dragon – some teetering precariously on thin stalks eroded to the point of collapse by the water. Our little boat wove its way through this water wonderland, every turn in the bay yielding a new vista. We were entranced.

After a couple of hours of this we dropped anchor in a secluded part of the bay and loaded into kayaks for a closer look. Erosion has carved caves and arches in the islands, making them ideal for exploration in kayaks. Pam and I were happy to be a craft we ourselves could manage, and spent a happy hour in our own little tour before returning to the boat for lunch. We were expecting noodle soup or some greasy fried rice. Instead we have steamed rice and vegetables, Vietnamese spring rolls and mackerel steaks. Another hour of cruising brought us to Bo Hon Island, site of the Sung Sot cave. We had heard nothing of this in any guide book and quite frankly we were not expecting to see much more than a few scruffy stalagmites and a tourist vendor. We were totally blown away by the most vast and massive cave we had ever seen. The cave was beautifully laid out with clear and clean flagstones quarried from the surrounding limestone, and with a minimum of artificial light to bring out the cave’s natural beauty. The view from the outer reach of the cave overlooking the harbor is the one that you see of Ha Long Bay on the Wikipedia site.

We had a brief spell of anxiety on the way home as the engine quite literally blew a gasket. It must be a fairly regular occurrence because the crew had a spare gasket on hand and managed the repair in forty-five minutes. Fortunately we were in a fairly open and protected part of the bay, and drifted peacefully along while the repairs took place. Half an hour later we were out into the open waters of the bay with their two metre swells. We stopped briefly on Monkey Island to feed the local residents who were happy to ‘steal’ our lunch leftovers and pose for pictures. Aside from them and a lone sea eagle, there was not much other wildlife to be seen.

It was a fantastic day of sights and experiences, and it was nice to have some fellow travelers to share the experience with and to talk about our various travels through South-East Asia. We finished our day with a decent meal at the Green Mango, recommended by our Aussie friend Jim, and not to be missed if you ever find yourself on Cat Ba Island. The weather may not have been the best at this time of year, but with no tourist crowds to contend with, we got to see some pretty amazing sights today. For my money the karsts looked even more mysterious and impressive arising from the mists as they came into view. We were glad we came.