Vietnam's stunningly beautiful Halong Bay is a World Heritage Site and a kayaker's dream but Mark Harris found the legends of pearl-spitting dragons as enticing as the emerald-green waters and countless grottoes
Vietnam has had to put up with more than its fair share of intruders: the US, of course, and the French and Japanese before them. But peer back into history and this beleaguered country was repelling enemies when dragons still roamed the Earth.
The legend goes that on the eve of a naval attack from China, the god-like Jade Emperor dispatched a family of dragons to protect Vietnam. Spitting countless pearls into the path of the invading fleet, the dragons caused the Chinese boats to founder. It was these same pearls — now transformed into towering limestone islands, or karsts — that I found myself gliding among, as the tropical sun slid into the mist.
An eagle soared overhead, the only sign of life in an eerily silent scene. Emerald-green waters lapped lazily into innumerable caves and grottoes, shaded by trees and shrubs clinging to the vertical walls. I was exploring Halong Bay in north-east Vietnam, a World Heritage site since 1994 — and a kayaker's dream.
Halong means “Descending Dragon”, and no one can agree quite how many of the dragon's “pearls” dot Halong Bay — estimates vary from 1,600 islands (according to Unesco) to 1,969 (patriotically, the year of Ho Chi Minh's death), upwards to about 2,500. But each one seemed to be able to raise a gasp as it emerges from the haze, boasting an elegant arch, a dashing curve, intriguing inlets, a green-topped peak or delicate fingers of rock.
The French did their best to name every island during their century-long occupation. Their names include the obvious (Le Dragon, Le Boomerang), the fantastic (Le Pierrot, L'Etoile) and the downright wistful, for sailors stuck at the edge of an empire: La Cathedrale and Les Mamelles (island of breasts).
The core islands lie about 30 miles from the nearest port, separated from it by busy shipping lanes that are no place for dawdling kayaks. The easiest way to access the most beautiful islands was to join one of the overnight tourist boats that leave from Halong town every afternoon. I was lucky enough to be sailing on the Emeraude, a replica paddle steamer oozing colonial style from every inch of polished teak railing and gleaming brass fixture.
The Emeraude carries several two-person open kayaks on board, which allowed me to slip away while more well-heeled passengers were seeking bargains at a floating pearl farm. The water was as smooth as a pond, the sky utterly clear and — away from the boat — the nearby islands seemed to be nudging each other aside to welcome my paddle.
These limestone islands are the result of geological activity that has seen mountains rise up and be worn back down again by millennia of rain and seawater. The current limestone formations have been around for only the past 20,000 years or so, and are still slowly eroding. Real adventurers can arrange climbing expeditions to tackle overhanging cliffs, dropping safely into the water from the top. (Tour operators in Halong town or the heavily touristed Cat Ba island can help with this.)
Clattering through cool, dark caves at the shoreline is great fun, but spotting the decaying wrecks of two small boats delivers a frisson of fear. Rightly so. While my excursion felt completely safe, there have been reports of extremely strong currents at the some of the larger caves in Halong Bay.
Returning to the Emeraude, there was time for a brisk swim in the surprisingly chilly waters before the captain weighed anchor. Most Halong tours feature a stop to look at impressive (but somewhat touristy) caves or to climb upwards for a panoramic view of the bay. This can be a great excuse to stretch your legs or just to jump back in the kayak for another paddle. Either way, by the time your boat stops for the night, you'll be ready for a cold beer.
As the rumble of the Emeraude engines faded away, a higher-pitched note started up and the Emeraude's tender sped off into the dusk.
Twenty minutes later, it returned and almost immediately the passengers were summoned below for the freshest of seafood dinners, its ingredients sourced from a floating fishing village tucked around the headland. The prawns were an explosion of lemongrass and butter; an unnamed white fish melted in the mouth, and a typically French tarte au chocolat sealed the deal.
All that remained was to select a chair on the upper deck, sit back and watch the moon rise from behind Le Crapaud (the Toad) and cast its silvery light on La Limace (the Slug). Something told me that Halong's colonial cartographers were rather more immune to the bay's charms than its modern-day visitors.
With fish splashing in the night and the lights of tiny fishing boats flashing in the distance, I reflected on the periodical sightings of sea monsters in the area. It is rumoured that the great dragons that formed Halong Bay found it too beautiful to leave, making their home permanently in its placid waters.
Nervous kayakers should take note.
Getting there: Vietnam Airlines (020-3263 2062; vietnamairlines.com) flies non-stop from Gatwick to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City twice weekly. The writer travelled with Kuoni (01306 747002; kuoni.co.uk), which offers tailor-made tours to Vietnam.
More information: The Foreign Office warns of “a number of fatal boat accidents in Vietnam, including two accidents involving foreign nationals in Halong Bay”. The advice says the Vietnamese government is reviewing safety standards on board boats.