Ha Long Bay: from the Pages of NatGeo to Real Life

Instinctively or intentionally, the giant creature known as the 'creator of all things' strew countless poppy and sunflower seeds over a bowl of water. With a puzzled look on their faces, his guests wondered if these were meant for the hot bread served on the table. Before someone could raise a question, dozens of graceful belly dancers entered the room bringing free flowing wine and soon the purpose of the poppy and sunflower seeds were forgotten. Over time—like thousands of years later—the scattered seeds evolved into thousands of limestone karsts spread over more than 1,500 square kilometers of Ha Long Bay. 

Jomie Benavides Naynes in Halong Bay

I first saw the images of Ha Long Bay in the pages of National Geographic magazines and later, on countless travel books and documentaries. I also got wind about its UNESCO World Heritage Site distinction some time back. Just a few years ago, I still saw Vietnam as a world beyond reach for myself. Because at that time, I strongly felt the need to explore the Philippines first before I set out and see other places abroad . Still, I made a mental list of spots I wanted to see in the near future. And yes, this include seeing Ha Long Bay outside of the fine prints of a glossy magazine page.

Jomie Benavides Naynes in Halong Bay

Fast forward to December of last year, I found myself in the cold streets of Hanoi shivering in the temperatures hovering around 8 - 10 degrees Celsius. It was so cold I have to wear two layers of cool t-shirts I bought just before I left and a thick Jacket. A few friends told me that winter ain't the best time to see Ha Long Bay. The thick fog enveloping the bay during the first minutes of our sail along the bay, proved their advice to be right on the money. However, there was that scintillating feeling of being chilled by the cold wind, as I stare at the many distant limestone karsts. 

Marky Ramone Go in deep contemplation

One of my 'junk' mates, a Canadian who seemed to notice my uneasiness at the cold. Told me "I traveled halfway around the world to escape from the cold, didn't know it was this cold here". He followed it up with an assurance that it doesn't hold a candle to the coldest day he experienced in Canada. "I remember I was at school when the coldest day on Earth happened, it was negative 40 degrees". While I doubt at his 'coldest day' claim, I am glad I don't live at that part of the Earth.

Junk boat in Halong Bay

Our junk boat may look like a beaten crap dating back to the Vietnam War on the outside, but inside it is elegantly designed with dark brown wooden interiors and fine Victorian chairs and tables. All complimenting a simple Oriental architecture. Since I was the only one not forming a couple (there's a Spanish couple, an English couple, a Malaysian couple (whom the Western travelers keep on referring to as "the Chinese couple"), and a gay couple from Canada and Denmark) I was assigned to twin cabin room by myself.

Jomie Benavides Naynes in Halong Bay

The room was surprisingly not that tiny than I expected, it has two single beds separated by a small table and a cramped up shower room with hot water. The package I got for this Ha Long Bay tour costs around $72.00 and was prepared by my Vietnamese friend Hoang who works at a Sihn Cafe Tourist branch. I know you might say that it's a bit expensive for a two-day shindig. But considering the place, all the meals, tour guide fee, bus transfer from Hanoi and back and the overnight accommodation aboard the iconic 'junk boats' of Ha Long, I find the tour fee just and fair.  

Marky Ramone Go thinking about Jomie Benavides Naynes

Our tour guide whose name I forgot but I would address here as Nguyen was very friendly and speaks better English than myself. When he found out that I was going to Sapa next, he showed me the images from the internet of the snow that fell on Sapa the day before. "You're lucky you are going there with Snow right now". As our junk boat sailed a line towards the inner congregation of crowded limestone karsts we stopped at Titov island to climb hundreds of steps to a view deck that afforded us a magnificent scenery of Ha Long Bay.

Jomie Benavides Naynes in Halong Bay

A kick-ass 360 degree scenery that reminded me of Matinloc Shrine in El Nido, greeted my huffing and puffing self at the top. Winter or not, I figured there aren't a day that visiting Halong Bay is a bad idea. I was reminded of those moments when I just read and see Ha Long Bay on television and magazines. In that moment, I finally tore the photographs of this place out of my memory and replaced it with moving images complete with the sensation of the stinging cold.

Our last stop-over was an incursion inside Dau Go cave, and during the night we played card games and exchanged travel stories. Being one of the most well-traveled person in my clan, my travel experiences pales in comparison with my 'junk' mates'. I listened intently and absorbing inspirations from their tales of being on the road. As we bid each other goodnight half-drunk courtesy of the free wine offered to us by our tour guide Nguyen, we toasted and celebrated with wide smiles on our faces. Heading back to my cabin, I felt extra gratitude of the good karma that gave me the chance to see Ha Long Bay up close.