Vietnam is a mouthwatering destination, says Deborah Spillane, but Halong Bay is a real highlight.
Having studied the itinerary of my full-on Wendy Wu Tour of Vietnam, I knew that by Day 10 I could be pretty tired.
So the prospect of visiting the UNESCO Heritage site of Halong Bay seemed the perfect way to finish my holiday. I could immerse myself in its stunning emerald green waters and enjoy the unique landscape that has made it so famous.
From the moment we arrived in Vietnam, we had hit the decks running. From the bustling motorbike-thronged cities, to the stunning countryside and from the tragic historical sites and monuments, to the ancient and poignant citadels and temples, we were fully immersed in the culture of the country.
Vietnam’s reputation did not disappoint. The food was wonderful and the people were as courteous and welcoming as you could hope for.
Near the end of our tour we arrived in Hanoi, home of the enormous grey Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum which contrasted somewhat with the lovely cafes and busy streets of the city with its stunning centerpiece — the magical Hoan Kiem lake.
The evening before we left we witnessed something uniquely Vietnamese — a traditional water puppet show. Rather than a stage in the theatre the show was performed from was a small elevated lake. Upon this all manner of strange tales were told by puppets apparently operated from under the water. Keeping up with the storylines was not as challenging as trying to work out how the puppeteers managed to make the puppets perform the dynamic Riverdance-like routines — while they were obviously submerged. The musical accompaniment was delightful and really held all the audience’s attention.
The next morning we set off early for Halong Bay. The drive took us out into rural Vietnam and mountain passes full of lush jungle greenery. The four-hour journey was broken by a visit to a pearl factory. I love pearls and received my first string for my 21st birthday many, many years ago. Here, everyone found a pearl in their oyster — albeit a tiny one. That thrill whetted the appetite to find bigger ones, and nearly everyone bought a memento at a great price in the shop full of treasures at the end of the tour.
Then the distinctive Halong Bay mountains drifted into view. They are truly captivating. The plan was stay overnight on the water. Our new home was a cross between a Mississippi river boat and a Vietnamese junk. My cabin was beautiful with its lovely dark wood interior, big comfortable bed, with crisp white linen sheets, and en suite bathroom. After a quick freshen up we headed for the first meal of our trip. The buffet lunch offered a great selection of dishes from Vietnamese to western, there was everything and anything you could wish for.
After sailing for two hours we dropped anchor. Immediately the silence hit us. With a balmy breeze and exotic birdsong all around us we prepared to transfer on to smaller boats to visit the floating villages dotted around the bay.