Kayaking Halong Bay


Karst, mystery—and way too much seafood By Michael Buckley, Copyright 2001

get the feeling, after three days on a whirlwind tour of Halong Bay, that we've only explored a tiny fraction of the bay. Aboard the good ship Huang Hai: a luxury vessel with red sails, which, as it turns out, are only for photo opportunities--but the half-dozen fibreglass kayaks strewn across the deck are the real thing. Our mother-ship is fitted out with eight cabins--which even have bathrooms attached.

Day One: we point our kayaks at a hole in a karst islet and paddle through a long tunnel to reach a vast lagoon. And, continuing on, paddle through another karst cavern to reach yet another lagoon. Though they appear solid, these karst islets--rising sheer out of the sea--are honeycombed with caves, and are sometimes home to tiny beaches, ideal for kayak landings. Kayaks give you the ultimate freedom to explore these mysterious waters, dotted with some 3000 karst islets and outcrops.

With headlamps (for the caves), sprayskirts, lifejackets and other exotic add-ons, we must appear bizarre creatures indeed to local fisherfolk who live in these waters in sampans, mostly fishing for squid. Paddling past small 'settlements'--composed of sampans lashed together--we discover that everything is aboard these sampans, including yapping guard-dogs and even television sets.

I have one big complaint about the kayak tour at Halong: there was WAY too much seafood. After lunch, I was so bloated I could barely squeeze into the cockpit of the fibreglass kayak. Sometimes we had four or five courses of fish, squid, prawns, crab and unidentified crustaceans--all washed down with cans of 333 beer. Now here's something peculiar: some limestone outcrops can turn sharp sounds into two or even three distinct echoes. So we test the musical qualities of the karst by yodelling and hollering--and by letting loose an occasional loud burp.

Michael Buckley is author of the newly-published Heartlands. He has also written the Tibet Travel Adventure Guide, Moon's Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos Travel Handbook, Cycling to Xian , Tibet, and has guided VeloAsia tours in Sumatra and Vietnam.

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