Ha Long Bay in Vietnam is an instantly-recognisable landmark in southeast Asia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a place we were very much looking forward to seeing for ourselves having seen it in photographic and video form for many years and being duly impressed. Around 2000 small islands, mostly limestone, jut up out of the water in an area covering around 1500 square kilometres and the bay is indisputably beautiful.
You can imagine our sense of disappointment, therefore, when we opened up the curtains in our room early in the morning on our approach to Ha Long Bay to discover rain and total cloud cover greeting us. It’s a very humid area of the world so rain should probably be expected but we’ve generally been incredibly lucky with the weather when we’ve travelled and our Princess Patter guide delivered to our room the night before had indicated nothing of the sort for our second day ashore in Vietnam. We quickly realised, though, that we were still some way out from land and there was still some considerable time before we’d be able to leave the ship so we mixed a little bit of hope that the increasing strength of the sun would burn off the clouds tempered with the acceptance that even if it didn’t we’d just get wet and still enjoy the experience.
The cloud and rain washed out a lot of colour from the impressive seascape we cruised slowly through and the more distant limestone formations were little more than ghostly shadows. The slow cruising speed of Diamond Princess added to that ethereal calm feeling that the views imbued upon us. It’s arguable as to whether what we saw would have been more impressive had the sun been shining.
You can get a feel for the gentle speed our cruise ship was undertaking in this short bit of video taken from our balcony. You’ll also be able to hear the ship’s horn sounding and echoing back off those gorgeous islets in Ha Long Bay.
Something that surprised us was the number of other ships in the area. While we were the only cruise ship approaching Ha Long this turned out to be a busy stretch of water for cargo vessels; the region has traditionally mined a lot of coal although the economy is shifting towards tourism. We’d discover once we got to land that the water in and around the bay wasn’t particularly clean at all with evidence of both the past and present big industries at fault and it’s a place that in our opinion could really do with some tender loving care.
So while we wouldn’t want to swim in the waters around Ha Long Bay we could still enjoy the pleasing sights of the many islands and their many forms – small, tall, short, long – and it’s certainly worth visiting this part of Vietnam for that alone. Even better, as hoped, the heavier clouds started to thin noticeably as the populated land of the bay started to come more into view and the rain eased off first to a light spitting before stopping altogether.
Closer to shore it was the smaller boats and local fishing vessels in particular that became more apparent. For the most part they seemed indifferent to the approach of our huge cruise ship, even to the point of one of them needing a friendly blast of the ship’s horn as it made little attempt to move more than a few metres away from the advancing prow of Diamond Princess.
Visibility increased with the brightening sky and lack of rain and we began to see the various structures along Ha Long Bay. If you take a look at a map of Ha Long you’ll see that the mainland is split into two areas: West Ha Long (Bãi Cháy) connects to East Ha Long (Hong Gai) by a cable-stayed bridge. The bridge as well as the cable car and large wheel that formed part of the Dragon Park theme park were very obvious draws for the eyes. It is worth noting as you look at the following photos that the land mass on the right of the photos, East Ha Long, is where most things of interest for the casual visitor are located but it’s West Ha Long where the tender boats from the ship drop passengers ashore. A free shuttle bus crossing the bridge was provided by Princess Cruises.
We finally felt the gentle rumble as the anchor dropped and Diamond Princess came to a stop in Ha Long Bay. There then proceeded a short wait while very little happened – at least from what we could see from the starboard side of the ship where our balcony was located – and we spent the time simply observing the other ships at rest in the bay or setting out from the mainland on some business, tourist-based or otherwise. We also spotted a large white structure in the distance between some of the islets that we at first thought was another cruise ship or possibly some kind of super-expensive yacht. We’d later discover it was nothing of the sort.
The wait was for Vietnamese immigration officials to make their way onboard.
With the officials on the ship and everything set up to let people start leaving we then spotted a number of small, local boats making for midships along the starboard side of the ship. There was obviously some coordination between them as they seemed to be moving in formation at first but the resulting squeeze as they all came together alongside us was almost comical with its near-frantic pushing and jostling for position. We hadn’t been certain what the boats were initially but we soon guessed they must be for organised excursions around the islands.
We wouldn’t be boarding any of those boats, instead planning to go ashore by tender boat to do our own thing, and that is covered in the next post from Vietnam and Ha Long Bay.