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Halong Bay

Halong Bay
 
 

MONOLITHIC limestone formations began to emerge out of the mist in the distance ahead. Standing on the deck of the immaculately built Chinese junk I could see either side of Halong Bay had hundreds of these formations. The mist was thickest close to the water, giving the illusion they were hovering above the water. This magical place was unlike any other I had ever seen before.

The junk I travelled on
The junk I travelled on

Vertical walls held up the island formations. They were scattered in the distance in either direction causing them to appear to move towards and away from each other as we sailed across the mysterious greenish grey water.

As we drew near to the islands, the vertical cliffs gradually changed from a jaded grey to a more defined pale yellow to almost black, with green trees growing in lost worlds at the top of each island and straggling trees perched precariously to any nooks and crannies they could find at the edges of the cliffs. The islands were all of different heights, creating an insane skyline.

Mysterious monoliths of Halong Bay
Mysterious monoliths of Halong Bay

The junk was heading towards a channel following a couple of other junks several hundred metres apart. The channel went in between two triangular islands appearing almost out of place in this world of insanely steep rectangular islands. I could see a Buddhist temple sitting atop the island on its tiny summit.

As the junk entered the channel, the small islands gave way to increasingly precipitous limestone bluffs. We passed a large sweeping bay with a curiously rounded mountain at the back towering high above the rest of the island. The channel narrowed as we became surrounded by cliffs towering hundreds of metres into the clearing sky. The greyness had swept away into blue sky and the sun highlighted the strange rubber wood forests perched on the islands, and the cliffs where it was too steep for trees to grow.

Entering the channels of Halong Bay
Entering the channels of Halong Bay

We passed a small dinghy sized wooden boat full of fruit produce. A woman wearing the distinctively Vietnamese conical hat stood in the boat rowing the two oars with great strength obviously in a hurry to get to where she was going. We passed close to one of the smaller islands, seeing the sea had eaten its way into the rock to create a small overhang around the entire island. I imagined most islands here were like that, making them a nice challenge for skilled rock climbers. On the other hand it would be a near impossible landing for normal mortals like me.

Village afloat under the cliffs
Village afloat under the cliffs

A small floating village suddenly appeared to our left. This consisted of large barges floating on large bright blue barrels, and each having a very simple and small house constructed on top of it. Everything was brightly coloured in bright blue, rust red and white, with some yellow and green. The huge cliffs that surrounded the floating village provided shelter from perhaps even the most adverse of conditions. There was a fishing family at each house, some people working there, others rowing small boats and wearing the distinctively Vietnamese conical straw hats.

We passed the village and the slightly overhanging cliffs kept getting higher and higher with impossible formations appearing. Some areas of the cliffs had broken into strange pinnacle and pillar formations, eerily reflected in the laminar turquoise grey water. Now we could see a couple of caves in the rock. One cave we passed was just two metres above the water and had a small jetty and fencing around it. It was obviously used for tourists.

Village under the monoliths
Village under the monoliths

Instead of approaching that one, we sailed into a bay where there were numerous large junks anchored. It was almost like a port in itself. There were thatched wooden buildings on the water with a long boardwalk connecting them. This was very quaint and fitted in very well with the towering cliffs and forest. Here there were gaps in the cliffs allowing the forest to go down to sea level in several areas.

The junk anchored in the calm turquoise water. The crew took the longboat and brought it to the side of the junk where a metal stairway had been lowered. We climbed down into the longboat just as an old woman in a rowboat approached us to sell some of her produce. She was wearing the distinctive straw conical hat, and had fresh food and soft drinks for sale. No one bought anything though, so she rowed towards the next arriving junk as we cast off and headed towards a jetty.

Jagged limestone formations
Jagged limestone formations

Once ashore, a stone paved stairway carved into the limestone rock steeply led us up the very rugged terrain concealed amongst the scrubby rubber wood forest. The trees obscured the otherwise dramatic view as we quickly gained altitude. All we could see was the flight of stairs cut into the stone, and the ferny undergrowth in amongst the leaf litter. It only took a few minutes though to reach the entrance to the Sung Rangsei Cave.

We climbed down into the entrance of the smallest of the three caverns of this cave system. Actually this was quite a large cavern compared to most I had seen over the years in New Zealand. To my surprise though, it was even hotter here than it had been outside. The stagnant air was dank with humidity. This was a surprise but realised now the only caves I had ever been in were in New Zealand where the temperatures are a lot colder than here. Now I understood that the hot sun here beating on the exposed rock above would transfer a lot of heat into the rock, explaining why it was so hot in here.

A narrow winding stairway cut into the rock up to a narrow opening into the next cavern. Once at the opening, we descended a stairway steeply zigzagging down the side of the cavern past a couple of old limestone columns until we reached a dark pool of water at the bottom. The pool had a number of small stalactite formations hanging off the ceiling above it. There was still a reasonable amount of light in this cavern due to some of the light coming in from the previous cavern combined with a small window of light from another hole to the surface near the top of the cavern. We stayed there for a few minutes before moving on.

Inside the main cavern
Inside the main cavern

We descended further along another winding passageway until we reached an enormous cavern. I didn’t realise the enormity of it as we were confronted with an enormous column. This had one been a stalactite and stalagmite formation that had joined up, but now was a good three metres thick. This dwarfed every column I had ever seen anywhere in the past. On the other side of the column was another natural window near the ceiling letting in a few rays of light through the misty haze. It was not enough to illuminate this part of the cavern though. Artificial lights were used to illuminate the more interesting columns and honeycomb formations.

The ceiling of the cavern was very curious. In caves I have ventured in the past, they were usually covered in sharp stalactites hiding the original form of the ceiling. This cave didn’t have stalactites for the most part of the ceiling. Instead it was fairly smooth with a complex array of large globular formations like bubbles or perhaps stones on a beach.

From there we turned left and entered further into the huge cavern. Coloured artificial light lit up this end of the cavern as the light from the cave exit at the other end wasn’t getting through. We followed a winding path past strange limestone formations.

We eventually reached the back of the cave about three hundred metres from the entrance. From here the lighting on the formations was spectacular, and the opening to the outside world at the other end was no longer visible, but it let in just enough light to add a mysterious atmosphere to it. The view before me was by far the most amazing spectacle of the underworld I had ever seen.

Turquoise water under the cave
Turquoise water under the cave

We continued walking along the track along the other side of the cave now heading upstairs in the choking heat. It was darker on this side of the cave, with less artificial lights, but we were heading upwards towards the large opening in the cave to the outside world. The light was very bright outside.

After a final climb along the staircase going through some boulder rubble, we reached the viewing platform at the top. We were outside again. Although the light streaming in had seemed extremely bright from inside the cave, the sky was completely overcast again.

The junks below were moored under the shelter of the impossibly steep formations towering straight out of the water. The opacity of the turquoise grey water added to the illusion of the formations continuing deep into the water. I assumed though the water was fairly shallow, even though it was obviously high tide.

The sun shines through the clouds
The sun shines through the clouds

Leaving the viewing platform, we followed the path downhill along the steep staircase path through the forest until reaching sea level. From there we followed an elaborate boardwalk going around the cliffs that towered out of the water.

The boardwalk continued around the bay, hugging against the cliffs and passing through a few thatched gazebos. We walked a few hundred metres before reaching a jetty containing several small boats, including ours.

Just before climbing back on board the boat, I looked back up the cliffs from where we had come from. I could see the gaping hole at the bottom of the cliff face where we had explored. I could also see the lower entrance of the cave system. The cliff face above the holes was astoundingly high. It was hard to believe we had that much rock above our heads when we were exploring the cave.

Once back on our junk, we sailed out of the busy channel with numerous junks sailing past the small fishing village. We turned right passing a very high cliff headland going past the sweeping bay we had passed earlier. The bay swept back roughly a kilometre into moderate terrain with forest down to sea level. To the left of the bay was a solitary hill towering vertically above the rest of the land to a large forested dome at the top. From there the headland of the bay was moderate apart from a sheer cliff at the very end.

Halong Bay formations
Halong Bay formations

Following the hills there was a relatively large open expanse of water leading towards a narrow channel passing the spectacular cliffs of Hon Cat Nang Island to our right. The island had a towering overhang, pointing in the natural direction of the rock stratification. When the sediments of shells and mud had been deposited five hundred million years ago, they would have formed horizontal pancake layers. Tectonic forces had have since rotated these formations a hundred degrees, causing the cliffs on the right hand sides of the island to overhang. The cliffs to the left were just steep bluffs rising at up to eighty degrees, many of which supported forest touching the water.

We gradually passed the precipice only to see even higher cliff faces further around the island. These were not vertical though judging by the increased scrub on the wall of rock.

Cruising Halong Bay
Cruising Halong Bay

We passed island after island. Some islands were no more than tiny rocks poking out of the water. Others were of a substantial size containing multiple terraces of elevated lost worlds above them and lakes and caves concealed within.

The strange rounded flat top islands drifting past us were at all distances and of all different sizes. They were like the ghostly apparitions of people frozen in petrified animation over a large watery grave. Towering fortifications of impenetrable cliffs circled each island.

I suddenly felt isolated. There was no sign of civilisation in any direction. The terrain was now so alien that it felt we were the only people here. The birds of the forests were silent, and the boats were all gone. Then suddenly out of nowhere a tiny floating fishing village with just six huts appeared in a sheltered bay as we rounded a long headland.

Floating fishing hut
Floating fishing hut

We quickly passed the village, where two men were cleaning out nets on the large deck supporting one of the huts. They were hard at work.

The precipitous island monoliths were getting taller. What held them up, I did not know. Some of the cliffs were towering over a hundred metres high now. We rounded yet another vertical point and changed course slightly entering a channel past a large island with particularly high cliffs plunging straight into the water, forming a wide bay. Inside the bay was another small fishing village consisting of five houses and a large net hung up to dry. There were four people working outside one of these huts.

Pink sunset
Pink sunset

The sun was sinking lower in the sky unseen behind the clouds. The colours had become softer and duller as we continued calmly sailing through the unusual island formations towering precariously above us. The lighter areas of cloud that had been golden had now faded into a soft pink colour. Everyone else was relaxing on the deck chairs, but I was having an absolute field day with the camera getting the amazing rock formations contrasted against the greenish grey laminar water.

The sky turned a dull pink as the sun slipped beneath the horizon. The colours were now amazing, the pink highlights against greenish grey sea and the purplish grey towering obelisks. This parting moment with the formations was truly unforgettable.

As the monolithic islands started fading away behind us, the grey sky illuminated into a soft magenta colour creating a regal hue to highlight the unseen sunset. Like all sunsets though, the vividness only lasted a few minutes before the sky changed into a soft grey blue colour. Then it quickly retired into darkness as we approached the lights of Halong City.

Story from today:
Sliding Monoliths of the Mist

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12 October 2009

 

Halong Bay

Vietnam

 

20°54'N
107°05'E

0 - 40m ASL

 

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