Kayakers Find Oasis in Ha Long Bay

By: Bobby Nguyen

As summer approaches, those interested in adventure activities are heading to Ha Long Bay, taking to the seas in slender kayaks to traverse the glassy waters.

Recognised twice by UNESCO, the world heritage site offers opportunities to weave through islets, visit hidden caves, explore lagoons, trod across unspoiled beaches and meet with local fishing villagers.

Though considerably more popular among foreigners than Vietnamese, sea kayaking can range from an hour-long sport to a multi-week adventure. The kayak itself is small and streamlined with an ample cargo hold. It cuts easily through waves while protecting the paddler from the majority of the water. Boats hold between one and two people.

Ha Long Bay is particularly ideal for the sport, given its placid waters, unintimidating current and minimal winds. Moreover, the innumerable islands offer plenty of opportunities for on-land relaxation and exploration.

Though most book a tour before departure for the bay, there are two main ways to get to the area. One can depart Ha Noi on a two-hour journey through the Hong (Red) River to Hai Phong Port City for a boat to Cat Ba Island. Or, also starting from Ha Noi, travellers can head to Quang Ninh Province's Ha Long City, around 100km from the capital, where ferry tickets to Cat Ba Island are easily accessible.

Upon arrival, visitors are introduced to the sport by a guide, who discusses gear, safety, routes and basic technique.

Then they are set free to wander around the limestone formations, which frequently harbour small beaches, lagoons and caves only accessible by kayak. Pearl farms and floating villages are scattered throughout the islands and the independence of a kayak enables visitors to browse these areas at leisure instead of speeding through on the packaged tours offered by most junks.

"The scenery in Ha Long Bay is spectacular, probably the best for sea kayaking in the world. This location is very special. The guide was great and helped make the trip memorable and enjoyable," one visiting couple, Canadians Alaneir and Greogory Smith, stated.

Some travel agencies even offer self-designed inflatable kayaks which allow for deeper exploration into the small, narrow caves, allowing paddlers to glide past sleeping bats.

Even if one does not adventure into the bowels of the limestone rocks, an abundance of wildlife inhabits the surrounding sea and land, including birds, reptiles, fish and coral. Many of the species are rare or endangered, and though sightings are not assured, they are most common at dawn and at dusk.

"It is very enjoyable kayaking trip on Ha Long Bay. It truly is a very very beautiful place and we are leaving with lovely memories and lots of photos," said Australians Paul and Maryline Gasten.

Some islets and grottoes have names given the distinctiveness of their features, like Mat Quy (Monster's Face), But Moc (Bald Cypress Tree) and Trinh Nu (Virgin). On the kayak, you can not only admire them but also discovery many others that are unnamed and untouched before.

You also can paddle to some of the pearl farms and floating villages to experience a unique way of life and buy some pearl cultivated there as gifts for families and friends when returning home.

If the day grows short, many tours offer night paddling, and some allow overnight camping on the white beaches that border the islands, which offers a cool breeze from the Bac Bo (Tonkin) Gulf in sandy isolation. Otherwise tourists can enjoy the night under the sky on their boat.

Most travel agencies in the capital assist travellers with Ha Long bookings. Prices depend on tour duration, accommodations and the season. Websites www.handspan.com , www.activetravelvietnam.com, www.indochinasails.com offer information on kayaking not only in Ha Long Bay but also along the Mekong River and in Ba Be Lake in the northern province of Bac Can.

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