Heavenly Halong Bay, Vietnam...And a repeat on Avalon Cruise news
HA LONG BAY, VIETNAM – There are far too many UNESCO heritage sites. This one doesn’t make that list.
Ha Long Bay has long been famous, and rightfully so, for the majestic limestone islands that rise suddenly out of the sea in the northeast section of this green, lovely country. There are said to be 1,969 islands in the bay, which stretches for miles and miles. Most are towering columns with sheer, vertical faces of rock and tree that plunge directly into the South China Sea; creating a magical, surreal effect.
Add in the hundreds of Asian-style sampans that ferry tourists from Vietnam, France, Milwaukee and Manitoba about and you get a scene that simply screams “Asia.”
It’s the stuff of dreams, albeit more crowded than one would like. Still, on my visit this week the crowds of boats weren’t too thick and it by no means spoiled the view or the experience.
Many folks opt to spend the night on a cruise boat and visit outlying islands, including Cat Ba Island. I didn’t get the memo on that, through my own haste and improper planning, but I did get the basic, four-hour tour that takes folks out to one of the islands closest to the mainland.
It features an enormous cave discovered by a farmer only a couple dozen years ago. Oddly, the government folks who run the attraction have installed dozens of garish blue, green and red lights in the cavern, thus making it feel a bit like Las Vegas instead of a natural wonder. Still, there are areas where you can see past the glitz and get lovely views of fantastically-shaped stalactices of all forms and sizes.
The basic tour then ferries tourists around the back side of the island to a floating fishing village, where folks have been eking out a living on seafood (and, now, tourism) for thousands of years. One man I spoke with, who I’ll feature later in the Star, is ninth generation in the village.
It’s a pretty lonely life, but the mainland is 45 minutes away and it’s lovely and peaceful as can be and there’s a tiny, floating school and several shops selling fruit and cigarettes and crackers and beer. There also are two floating banks, so commerce can’t be all that bad.
Many folks like to rent a kayak and explore a pair of beautiful lagoons reached via small entrances only five or ten feet high. They’re absolutely magic; still and wondrous and surrounded by massive cliffs of rocks and trees.
Okay, the kids singing what sounded like a German beer song might have put me off for a second, but the music didn’t last long and I loved the quiet. It was great chatting with some of the village residents, who posed for a photo with me (I don't usually go for this sort of thing but my guide liked the idea).
The boat then passes past a pair of famous rocks called the Fighting Cocks, although my excellent tour guide prefers to think of them as “Kissing Chickens.” I suspect he has a solid future in p.r.
I was staying at the lovely Novotel on Halong Bay, which has a very good restaurant and a fabulous pool with views out to the islands, although it’s usually overcast from what I can see. There are dozens of waterfront cafes and restaurants scattered up and down the coast in what looks a bit like Wasaga Beach without the beach. (They’ve tried installing sand to create beaches but it appears to be a losing battle).
I had lunch at one spot he mentioned. It was okay, but the chicken feet in my lemongrass and chile chicken I could do without, and it would be nice if the beer wasn’t room temperature on a day when the thermometer reads 30 degrees or so. Still, it’s a great part of the world that’s justifiably famous, and it’s easily one of the most beautiful places I’ve had the good fortune to visit in my life.
AVALON CRUISE NEWS
Star entertainment/travel guy Richard Ouzounian files this report:
Avalon Waterways is betting big on the successful river cruising market by launching three new ships in 2012, leasing two more to its family and adding a series of routes around the world.
The brand new Avalon Ankgor will debut in Sept. 2012 on a 14-day Mekong River itinerary that will make it the only passenger line to cruise all the way from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City, without a land break, on a ship custom-built for this route and featuring only 16 staterooms.
In Egypt, they will be upping their offerings by 30% over 2011, through chartering the MS Mayfair and the MS Kasr Ibrim, adding Lake Nasser to their waterways for the first time.
And on their consistently popular European routes, two new luxury ships, the Vista and the Visionary, will join the newly-christened Panorama, adding 20% more voyages on their journeys that run through France as well as extending all the way from Amsterdam to the Black Sea. They'll also be adding themed "Legacy" cruises, such as Jewish Heritage and European History, joining others like Tulip Time, Art and Impressionism and Burgundy and Provence Jazz Cruise.
For more information visit www.avalonwaterways.ca