Celebrating New Year's in Halong Bay

My brother and I decided to start our voyage in northern Vietnam and work our way down. First stop: the majestic Halong Bay.

We had trouble deciding how the steep cliffs and rocky mountains protruding from the ocean were formed. Dragons? Don’t think so. Glaciers? Nope. Plain ol’ erosion? Apparently so. At first, I didn’t want to believe that something as simple as flowing water could form such a dynamic landscape; I would rather believe the dragons did it! A Vietnamese legend states the dramatic sculptures were created by a great dragon’s tail as it manoeuvred about its habitat in the sea and mountains. My guidebook says that the name “Ha long” actually means “where the dragon descends into the sea”.

But according to geographers, karst formations are formed when midly acidic water erodes weaker carbonate rocks, usually limestone. Halong Bay is especially dramatic because of its location in the ocean, as the formations are surrounded by the sea, hiding the valleys under a blanket of water. All karst formations were once a part of the ocean floor, but only a few sites remain in the sea today. The acidic water also carves out the many caves hidden below the surface of karst formations. Before we made it to the shore, there were numerous mountains scattered around the otherwise flat land, just teasing us as we waited to see what nature had in store for us.

Our first day in Halong Bay, we found ourselves part of a herd of junks (boats) cruising around the rocky pillars. Tour itineraries in Halong Bay are arbitrary; everyone does the same thing as the same time. As our boat left shore, so did countless others. Our boat (like most of those around us) was a big wooden number, with cabins on the first level, a dining room on the second level, and an open deck above for us to sit and enjoy the views. The more expensive boats had huge golden sails that looked stunning as they cruised the open waters, but the passengers on our boat decided it wasn’t worth paying for—after all, we could enjoy how good the boats looked better than their passengers could!

It was cool and damp outside on the last day of the year, but that didn’t stop us from sitting on the rooftop deck and admiring the views. The three thousand islands, with their striking jungle-covered rocks, appeared blue and grey under the cloak of the misty clouds.

After visiting one of the many caves (with the rest of the herd, of course) and kayaking (again, with the rest of the herd), we cruised to our spot between a few islands where we would spend our New Year’s night. As the sun went down, the lights from the herd of other junks anchored around us lit up the sky. We admired our company, knowing that we were all celebrating the New Year together, sharing the experience in Halong Bay. My brother and I went to bed early, but the next morning other passengers told us that at the stroke of midnight, three fireworks exploded into the sky to signal the start of 2008 in Vietnam.

My brother and I were excited to see the skies had cleared for our second day in Halong Bay. We thought the views were incredible before, but they didn’t compare to the glittering blue and green water, crisp green foliage on the rocks, and cloudless skies. The sunshine and blue skies theatrically showcased each sculpted island as I'm sure the great dragon intended, with drama and delight.