A BAT let out a startled screech as we paddled our kayak into a moonlit limestone cave in Halong Bay. I’m not sure who was more surprised – me or him – but it served to remind me that humans are the minority here.
Bats are just one of countless wildlife species that inhabit the islands and caves of this ancient, World Heritage-listed site, which resembles the set of the TV series The Lost World.
As my kayaking partner and I paddled back out into the open, more squeals and calls from neighbouring islands were heard as the nocturnal wildlife took over the nightshift.
Eventually, we saw the distant lights of the Indochina Sails, and paddled towards the 38m junk, our home during a two-day cruise.
Oddly, the boat also has a library – although why anyone would want to sit and read when there’s the option of sunning yourself on deck, swimming in the bay or drinking cocktails after a day kayaking, is anyone’s guess.
Soon after boarding the junk at Halong City, its home base, we’d headed to the deck to do our best impressions of cashed-up celebrities with too much time on their hands.
As we sat back and watched the glorious colours of the bay, the chef created the first of the five-course meals and banquets we were to be offered.
The boarding lunch alone featured crab soup with lemongrass, sauteed crab, grilled prawns, steamed fish, beef and broccoli and loads of fruit.
Dinners, we found, were just as appealing. They included Vietnamese specialties like banana flowers served with lime juice and peanuts and cuttlefish.
That first night I’d left the shutter of my windows open in the hope of being awoken by a sunrise. Instead, I was awoken around midnight by a loud clap of thunder.
The weather around Halong Bay can be variable.
Showers are common during the summer months, but tend to last no longer than an hour or two. Given the humidity during our August visit, a short burst of rain was almost welcome.
As the brilliant light show continued, I became aware the Indochina Sails was barely rocking. The captain had anchored in a protected cove, but I’m guessing the bay rarely has a swell – good news if you’re prone to seasickness.
Halong Bay has nearly 2000 islands, half of which remain unnamed. Most are covered by thick jungle inhabited only by monkeys and birds.
Others are stone pillars topped with vegetation that clings tenaciously to every crevice. Those that are virtually hollow inside are riddled with giant caves and tunnels.
Among the most spectacular is the aptly named Sung Sot Cave, or Surprise Grotto. The entrance to the cave, on Bo Hon Island, can barely be seen through the dense foliage.
An over-water walking platform has been built around the island to help visitors access the entrance, and stepping inside makes you feel you are walking into the inside of a mountain – it’s huge.
Thousands of stalactites and stalagmites line its chambers with dark reflective ponds, adding to the mysteriousness of the cave.
After a day exploring caves, we cruised to another island, passing rows of fishing cottages built on stilts and surrounded by water.
Fishing is the lifeblood of most Vietnamese, and features prominently in all their dishes.
Even in towns away from the coast, you’ll see locals chopping squid on the streets before they start cooking it up on a portable stove.
Although it’s possible to fish from the Indochina Sails, we decide to leave that kind of thing to the locals. The almost deserted island and beach ahead was far too inviting to pass up.
For more information, please visit website: http://www.indochinasails.com/en/itinerary.html
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