A sailing adventure on legendary Ha Long Bay, North Vietnam
Sailing on the shimmering emerald water of legendary Ha Long Bay in north Vietnam is truly a spectacular experience! There’s something so romantic & magical about sailing in a wooden junk boat on the sparkling jade & emerald water of this awesome marine landscape, located in the province of Quang Ninh. The formation of Ha Long Bay, whose name means "Dragon Descending" goes back to ancient days. Time, the sea, weather & maybe even an epic legend has created this breathtakingly majestic scenery, often referred to as “Heaven on Earth.”
Unsplashed photo by Martina Lobato
I sailed aboard one of the famous antique junk boats of Ha Long Bay a few years ago, with my young daughter. The area is one of the natural wonders of the world & renowned to have the most spectacular scenery & magnificent rock formations.
It was a very exciting experience arriving to the busy Hon Gai Harbour & looking for the junk boat we had chartered to sail on for the next few days. There was a lady with a charming Vietnamese French accent giving instructions over a loudspeaker to all the international travellers in 3 languages - Vietnamese, French & English. Travellers from every corner of the world were scurrying to find their allocated boats. All the antique wooden junk boats with the colourful sails - it looked like a scene from a “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie.
You travel with a small sailing party because junk boats usually only have 3 to 10 cabins. We finally found our junk boat & I half expected a swashbuckling sea captain to come down the gang plank, for it seemed like I was living in one of the old adventure movies my mother used to love.
We had a delicious morning tea on the top sun deck to meet our fellow travellers, from Italy, the USA, Scandinavia & Australia. We all marvelled at the intricate wood carvings that adorned the beautiful junk boat, the main feature a Wooden Dragon Head, apparently the spiritual symbol that traditionally adorns the Ha Long junk boats.
The sun deck was polished to perfection with delightful plants in antique blue & white oriental pots grouped perfectly. It was the perfect place to bask in the sun & take in the stunning scenery.
In bygone days, junk boats first appeared in the Han Dynasty around 200 BC, they transported commodities & cargo around the known world by the Chinese traders. The wooden vessels had a shallow hull, up to 10 masts, sails of linen reinforced with bamboo & a rudder that could help glide through the rivers & canals plus navigate on the high seas. In antiquity, both the river & seaports were used by traders to transport goods. In some cases, junk boats were used as imperial military vessels. In the 14 Century the Hongxi Emperor decommissioned the maritime voyages & burned down the imperial naval fleet as China mysteriously stopped their maritime expeditions. However, the humble fisherman away from the imperial drama of this era saved the traditional junk boat building legacy.
My holiday photos of our junk boat. © Linda De Angelis
Today, these beautiful teakwood junk boats have been reclaimed, refurbished & converted to charter vessels for tourists to enjoy this gorgeous destination. The cabins have been renovated into aquatic heritage hotel rooms & the saloons have been converted into elegant dining rooms complete with traditional teak furniture & a bar. Interestingly the origin of the word “junk” in the English language is traced back to the word “junco," derived from the Arabic word “j-n-k” & the Javanese/Malay name for large vessel is “jong” or “djong” in Chinese “chuán” is the word for ship.
Unsplashed photo by Steven Lasry
We started to sail on our junk boat mid-morning. Our onboard guide shared some fascinating details about this stunning UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site with its magnificent rock formations. The area has been changing geologically for a mind blowing 500 million years. In ancient times marine limestone rocks used to stand at over 1,000 meters tall. Researchers say 8,000 years ago there was a monumental marine occurrence where the sea rose dramatically making flooding & higher shorelines. So eventually this created around 2,000 islets, islands, limestone karats, countless mysterious sea caves & hidden beaches.
As with every ancient landscape, there is an amazing legend to explain the phenomena. As the story goes, when Vietnam was formed it was then ruled by the Jade Emperor, there were some hostile invaders that came in by sea who tried to conquer the land. The emperor called upon the gods for help. They sent a mother dragon & her children to defend the Vietnamese people of the land in a ferocious battle.
Some say the Mother Dragon & her dragon children incinerated the enemy & their fleet with their divine fire breath, defeating & turning them into emeralds! The jewelled remains of the enemy were left behind to make a giant marine wall to discourage any future invasions. It is said after 1,000 years passed peace returned to the land, the marine wall of emeralds transformed into the limestone karats, islands & islets that we know today as Ha Long & Bai Tu Long Bays.
Dragon descending. Unsplashed photo by Silas Barsch
Knowing all this history it really made our adventure more special, knowing we were sailing on such legendary waters. Our crew prepared a fresh delicious lunch of Vietnamese cuisine, the dining room was set beautifully with crisp white linen & traditional elegant China. We really enjoyed our traditional Vietnamese luncheon while cruising through Bai Tu Long Bay & into Ha Long Bay.
In the afternoon we visited Vung Vieng village & learned about community life in Ha Long Bay. We explored Vung Ha, a pristine idyllic area that was perfect for swimming & we discovered the Bay’s hidden caves by kayak. In the afternoon, we relaxed back at the boat as we cruised into the secluded Dong Tien Lake where the boat anchored overnight. We had a delightful sunset party & enjoyed cocktails on the sundeck. Before dinner we had some fun doing cooking lessons, learning how to prepare traditional Vietnamese food. The crew prepared us a sumptuous dinner of authentic Vietnamese cuisine. After dinner we enjoyed a balmy evening under the stars. Some of our travelling companions did squid fishing over the back of the boat & the squid glowed a bright purple under the water in the light of the boat.
That night when I went to sleep, I dreamed about the day’s adventure & all we had learned about Ha Long Bay. The next morning, I woke up very early to meet the dawn of the day, the water was like a sheet of glassy emerald & the morning mist added an eerie ambience as it hung on the surface of the water & wrapped around the dragon formation rocks.
My holiday photo taken at dawn on Halong Bay © Linda De Angelis
The following day I learned the next instalment of the Ha Long Bay legend! After the battle on the sea, the heroic Mother Dragon & her children did not return to the heavens. Instead, they stayed & took on human form to help the Vietnamese people farm, raise cattle, reclaim land & to succeed. Some legends say the mother dragon is the formation of Ha Long Bay & her children the adjacent Bai Tu Long Bay. Looking at the shimmering emerald water in the morning mist you could well imagine such an enchanting legend would have created this magnificent exotic marine wonderland, if you look closely enough, and with a little imagination, you can see the rock formations looking like the curved scaled body of the dragons emerging from the emerald & jade gem coloured water.
The other early risers & I did morning tai chi on the sundeck. It was an incredible experience to practice the Kung Fu moves in the calm serenity of the stillness of the water. We enjoyed a light breakfast in the dining room while cruising to Sung Sot area, where we explored the Sung Sot Cave - the largest & most impressive of Ha long Bay’s extensive cave system. There was a steep walk up a Rocky Mountain to reach the entrance, this is where the iconic view is with all the junk boats dropping anchor surrounded with the dragon formation rocks.
Enjoying our last delicious lunch onboard, we were still amazed with the spectacular Ha Long Bay scenery. We cruised back to shore saying our goodbyes to our fellow travellers & the crew.
At the end of our voyage my young daughter said, “that was some adventure!”
SUMMARY REFLECTION: I wonder to myself has the spirit of the mother dragon & her children remained in Ha Long Bay & Bai Tu Long Bay. For it seems we were given fair winds & a magical adventure while sailing on this beautiful antique junk boat.