I have seen thousands of pictures of Halong Bay. It is one of the places I think almost every traveler considers at some point. Of all the ‘have you been’ conversations I’ve been a part, it has not only cropped up, but usually become the benchmark of wanderlust credibility. The stories I’ve heard have been overwhelmingly positive, and the images I see of turquoise sky over emerald water have always filled me with a yearning to sail through the passages of the South China Sea. My image of Halong Bay was so completely constructed that there was no doubt in my mind that – when I finally got there – I would be in some way let down.
As we reached the coast, about three hours by bus from Hanoi, my hopes jumped somewhat as I saw the karst pillars spread out across the horizon before me, but this was mixed with a tinge of affirmed disappointment that the islands were so close to the shore. My first misconception had been revealed, but it was far from a deal breaker.
Halong Bay is so close to the harbour that it took us – along with about a thousand other boats – under 20 minutes to cross the open water and reach the first island from our berth at the crowded marina. This was the second, and again not unexpected, blow to the mental image I had so carefully crafted of this travelling pilgrimage over the years. As we motored out of the half constructed island dock, a flotilla of other boats plied the same passage, jostling for space and a clear view of the islands for their passengers.
While my initial lack of awe at Halong Bay may have been expected, the islands are most certainly breathtaking, and quite fulfilling in their own right, even if they aren’t quite as uniquely amazing as they are billed (it felt oddly familiar to Queen Charlotte Sound in New Zealand’s South Island which you traverse during the inter-island ferry crossing from Wellington to Picton). In fact, the whole experience threw me a lot more than I expected, because I recognized the bay as spectacular and worthy of its UNESCO mantle, but my long-fueled expectations did rob me of the sobering sense of insignificance that I might have expected, and that such a cruise should have provided. The very rush I had craved for years was lessened by the anticipation, so I was left with the feeling that I was looking at Halong Bay as another picture in a brochure instead of a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Despite this peculiar anomaly, Halong Bay still rates as one of my greatest travel experiences to date, and I look forward to weaving it into my next ‘have you been’ traveler comparison at a backpacker hostel somewhere in the world. During that conversation I will probably even add, “But next time I’ll stay out there for a few days and it will be better.” It won’t be, but you can be sure that I plan to do it anyway.