Friday, October 26, 2012

It's Not You, Halong Bay. It's Me.

If a long-term traveler or a backpacker tells you that he liked every place he visited because each place had its own charm and character, you can be sure that that is one big pile of BS. At the very least, some places will be mediocre while others spectacular. On the two times that I went to Halong Bay, the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is arguably Vietnam's top tourist attraction, I cannot really say I had a travel experience worth writing home about. Don't get me wrong. I thought the place was stunning and beautiful, but I found it inadequate to be considered as one of the highlights of my travels.

Halong Bay, Vietnam
You're beautiful, Halong Bay. So beautiful. But a highlight of my travels? Hmmm.

Maybe it's the weather.

The first time I went, northern Vietnam was on the tail-end of winter. I checked the temperature that morning and 13°C was still pretty cold for my tropical sensibilities. But hey, that is what I get by traveling to northern Vietnam in the month of February. The thing is, winter in northern Vietnam means that things get cold, gloomy, and drizzly. I have grown to like winter, but only when it's cold and sunny. I know. Asking for the moon.

I do not really know why I harbored even the tiniest bit of expectation that weather will get better outside of Hanoi, a city notorious for its fog and pollution, more so in winter. Nope. Weather did not get better. I saw not a tinge of sunlight the two days I was in Halong Bay. It was a surprise even that with all that fog, I still saw the endless fields of limestone karst which Halong Bay was famous for. For that, I am thankful.

Halong Bay, Vietnam
A wonder we still saw the limestone karst of Halong Bay even with all that fog and cloud

Fast forward to this week. October. Tail-end of rainy season. Onset of fall. Weather was better. I will give you that. While it was not constantly sunny (for the most part it was drizzly and it poured hard at some point), I appreciated that I did not have to don winter jackets. And I got to have not one, but two beautiful sunsets: one in Halong Bay itself, where the limestone karst seemed to have jumped right out of a beautiful Chinese painting, and one on laidback Cat Ba Island, where the setting sun did not hold back its vibrant colors. So no. It was definitely not the weather.

Cat Ba Island, Vietnam
Those colors were not photoshopped, I kid you not.

Maybe it's the water.

Sad to say, Halong Bay does not have the cleanest waters in the world, at least the sections of it which have been exploited by the tourism trade. Then again, it would be hard to believe the bay would ever be pristine in any sense. The river that is the source of life for the entirety of northern Vietnam, the Red River, drains in the Gulf of Tonkin where Halong Bay is. All the silt, sediments and sadly pollution dumped into the Red River will inevitably end up in the same body of water. This is precisely the reason for which waters in the bay is not as clean and clear as one could hope. For that to happen, the whole southern Yunnan province in China and the whole of northern Vietnam will have to clean up their act, so to speak. I do not think that is happening anytime soon. So really, it is unfair for me to expect Halong Bay to be as clean and pristine. So it's not that.

Halong Bay, Vietnam
Waters were not as pristine but views still came out fine, no?

Maybe it's whole touristy package

In the two times that I have been to Halong Bay, I was on an all-inclusive package tour. I was too burned-out of travel the first time I had the chance to visit Halong Bay that DIY-ing it would have been clearly out of the question. The second time I was with a friend who was on week-long vacation, a holiday, an escape from day-to-day life. It would be unfair to ask her to rough it out with me. Besides, I was swamped, so swamped, with work leaving me no time to plan an independent trip, had we opted for one. We did the whole kayaking and exploring the caves bit, just like any other enthused tourist up for a day of organized fun. It was alright.

Halong Bay, Vietnam
Hang Sung Sot, the Cave of Surprises. Surprise! It's touristy.

However, and this is one big however, one thing I do enjoy with these all-inclusive trips is meeting fellow travelers. On the junks, you eat meals together. If you are up for it, you get to party all-night karaoke-style aboard the ship you're spending the night in. Finally, and if you booked the right tour, you get to have a Vietnamese spring rolls cooking class, too. We did. It was fun and delicious. So no. The whole Halong Bay touristy package does have its redeeming factors.

Spring Rolls Cooking Class, Halong Bay, Vietnam
Cooking class aboard a junk in Halong Bay. Fun and delicious.

It's me. This is all on me.

For me, a trip involving the sea should always, always involve pristine waters and a beautiful beach. That is the standard (or snobbery?) instilled in every Filipino traveler, I guess. Hey, our 7,107 islands harbor some of the most beautiful virgin beaches in the world, I would say. It is only natural that Filipinos such as myself instinctively know how to define what makes for a perfect beach or seaside destination for that matter. And you know what? We have in the Philippines the same limestone karst topography Halong Bay is famous for. I give you Palawan, Philippines.

Big Lagoon, El Nido, Palawan, Philippines
Limestone karst topography in Palawan, Philippines

Halong Bay most definitely does not have the monopoly on limestone karst topography. It is a feature in many places in Southeast Asia and Southern China: Yangshuo in China's Guangxi province, many parts of Northern Laos, Ninh Binh two hours south of Hanoi, and finally, Palawan in the Philippines. While Palawan's limestone karst topography may not be as vast, its setting sure is more pristine and therefore, more inviting.

Here's the verdict.

Go to Halong Bay. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for a reason. It is stunning and it is beautiful. I appreciate it for what it is. Really, I do. It's just difficult for me to write home about it precisely because home literally has the same thing, only better.

*More photos in my Flickr set Vietnam: Halong Bay

Have you been to Halong Bay? To any of the other limestone karst sites in Southeast Asia and southern China? What's your verdict?

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