If legends are to be believed, Halong Bay might just be proof of how dragons existed way before Harry Potter and Gringotts and Daenerys Targaryen and her sons made it mainstream. A cluster of some two thousand islands emanating from the beautiful green waters of the Gulf of Tonkin, this World Heritage Site has been making Vietnam more proud with every passing day. And for this, the Vietnamese have to thank a great dragon from the mountains for descending into the sea and excavating the limestone karsts with its swinging tail. The islands with their many grottoes that are a result of wave and wind erosions seem to form a warm embrace when seen from a distance, it is as if they are welcoming you to explore the magic of Halong Bay. This mysticism definitely has many takers as can be seen from the plethora of boat cruises circling the inlet.
The portal to the bay, Halong City, which was mostly an unimpressive concrete jungle, was where I was transferred from the Hanoi airport so that I could take a speedboat to my cruise. And after a short but slightly rocky journey, I was transported to this popular tourist attraction which honestly reminded me of a grander version of Krabi in Thailand. And once inside my wooden abode, sipping on a tall glass of lemonade with a cool jasmine scented towel in my hand, watching tiny mountains emerge from the still expanse of water and cleverly masking the setting sun, I knew I was in the right place. I must add that if you happen to love seafood, Halong Bay will make you want to stay on forever because your breakfast, lunch, high tea and dinner will cover every beauty that the sea has to offer - the crunchiest of crabs and prawns, majestic lobsters, salty oysters, buttery pomfret, rockfish and even snails. Since too much of everything can often be a curse, I unfortunately harboured an aversion to seafood, so much so that I have stopped going near anything that swims.
If trips to nearby exotic beaches and artificially illuminated caves do not do enough to thrill you, what will impress you more is the fact that some 1500 locals live in four fishing villages on the bay; villages that float. Additionally the staff on your cruise will do everything they can to keep you occupied, be it cracking a joke or two in really broken English, telling you stories of their own Loch Ness Monster, the Tarasque, taking you kayaking or conducting a spring roll workshop with all the vigour in the world. Be sure to splurge a little because the higher the price, the better your stay. I would recommend the Halong Phoenix Cruiser which comes for around 200 USD per person per night and includes the entrance to the national park, three set meals, on-shore excursions, sightseeing, cooking classes, kayaking and an English-speaking guide apart from your stay. If you bargain a little and tip well, they might include your transfers to and from Hanoi.
If you are looking for a luxury vacation where a dozen people will be happy to pamper you, Halong Bay is a wonderful idea. This storybook, ethereal paradise will captivate you in ways like no other.