When we began to plan our adventures through all of Southeast Asia, having time to explore Ha Long Bay was at the top of our list. Pictures that we had seen made it appear to be one of the most naturally beautiful places in the world. And it sure didn’t disappoint. Off the coast of northern Vietnam, Ha Long Bay comprises more than 2,000 small limestone islands and islets which each soar skyward out of the crystal blue water. Each one looks like a small but steep mountain, with most reaching over 100 meters tall and many containing caves inside.
We decided that to really take advantage of the area, we would take a 3 day / 2 night boat trip that allowed us to see more of the region and sail out further than the many day trip boats that ventured to the closer islands and caves. We shared the boat with a dozen others and enjoyed all kinds of adventures from kayaking through the calm seas to hiking through caves and visiting the floating villages where people still live today. Around sunset, we logged an hour or so of cannonballs off the bow of the boat and into the water. But perhaps the best part of the excursion was simply sitting on the upper deck of the boat and staring in awe as we slowly cruised past hundreds of islands.
One of the most interesting things we learned was about the people who live in and around Ha Long Bay. There are over 30,000 people who live on the water in this area. The islands themselves are mostly uninhabitable because of their mountainous topography and lack of soil for any agriculture. However, this culture of people has lived for thousands of years in the area simply on their small fishing boats or in floating huts that they have constructed. Sometimes groups of families live together, and other times there are families or couples who live completely alone. In more recent years, the culture has changed a bit as people have been introduced to the mainland and have taken advantage of things like power generators and fresh water jugs. In the past, they had to boil salt water to gather the condensation as their drinking water. Still, many live in the same way that they and their ancestors have for thousands of years.
The region is changing very quickly as the Vietnamese government seeks to increase their tourism business. Our tour guide profusely explained how the government wanted to make the area very appealing to westerners – even by doing things that made no immediate sense to us, like painting all the boats white and retiring traditional Vietnamese style boats for others that more resembled western cruise ships. There is now a giant theme park being built right at the pier from which each tour boat departs. Some of those who live on the water now take tourists through their village or rent kayaks in exchange for money or other goods instead of fishing as the sole provider of well-being. So, we feel lucky to have caught a glimpse still this early on, and we are very fortunate to have gotten to explore this incredible and beautiful place.