updated December 3rd
Halong bay is on the northeast coast of Vietnam. It is the ethereally beautiful 600 square mile area of over 3000 miles of islands made up of karst/limestone formations. Upfront let me say that one should really try spending more than 3 hours on a boat exploring Halong Bay. The jury was out in our group as to whether it was worth the 3 hour each way drive from Hanoi for the 3 hours in the boat. I thought it was worth it (but I liked the scenary from the bus window. Jerry could have done without it. I'd say our group was evenly split also on the issue. so if you can either spend the night in Halong Bay so you can take a full day trip or better yet take an overnight boat trip you will see more and get away from the parade of 1/2 day trips boats (again interesting but they do get in the way of enjoying the scenery in any serene fashion).
A large portion of the bay (over 400 sqmiles) is a UNESCO Heritage site. The waters are a deep jade green. It is often misty/hazy as it was the day we were there but that just brings out a different beauty. In the area we were in there was not a lot of bird life but we did get to watch brown kites (a type of raptor) 'fishing" for dinner. I understand that further away from the mainland near Cat Bo Island there are larger populations of seabirds.
There are over 20 limestone caves that are know of in HaLong Bay. 5 are easy to visit. We visited Thien Cung Grotto (Heavenly Cave) which is probably the MOST visited so its a little like Carlsbad Caverns at rush hour. They've installed lighting which in some cases enhances viewing but in others (garish red, green, and blue lights) it makes it seem a bit like a Disneyland attraction. But the cave is beautiful nonetheless. Do not expect the temperature to be cool however...a portion at the top of the cave is open to the outside which brings in a wonderful shaft of light to illuminate the cave in one spot...but also warm humid air.
We had a very good seafood lunch (crab, shrimp, seabass, some type of spring roll, and stirfried morning glory) while we motored out into Halong Bay. We sat on comfortable sofas and watch the sea whoosh by.
The drive out to Halong Bay was very interesting as it is both a rich rice growing area and an area of new industry much grown with foreign investment (Nike shoes, Canon, etc). The rice in the region was near to or ready for harvesting so much of it was a rich gold/yellow. Farmers were out with their water buffalo working furrows in areas just harvested (we did she one machine powered furrower which look not much easier to handle than a water buffalo...but it was faster). Women bundled rice stalks together. Baby water buffalos hung out waiting for "mom" to come back for the next meal. In the evening, there were fires everywhere while they burned chaff and "unusable" materials. The ash is used for fertilizer in the new clearly fields. The fields are often surrounded by small plots of cabbage, banana plants, water hyacinths, and other produce used for family food and market. Very little land goes to waste. ducks are prevalent eating up rice that has fallen to the wayside. Fish ponds predominate near homes. And then you have brick factories, power plants, small towns, more rice fields, shoe factory, army installations, more rice fields, more small towns, and of course motorbikes everywhere. More on the economics of motorbikes later.
A few humorous tidbits from the road. Rest stops on the highways in Vietnam are few and far between...clean reststops even further. When there is one...it is time to make a "happy stop"...the way they are referred to in Vietnam. Fortunately there were Happy Stops to and from Halong bay...both associated with craft making. A place to use the bathroom, get a coke, and if you want buy a handmade souvenir (without very much pressure...so it was nice).
When we were on the long drives Tam (our tour guide leader) would share information about his country and his life. It was one of the highlights of the trip (along with the interesting lectures we got from Clark Near, our Smithsonian expert on Southeast Asia). One funny story related to the complexities of the Vietnamese language which is tonal...so the word "tam" depending on how it is pronounced can mean many things besides Tam the man who is our group leader. We asked him what the most common mispronounciations mean....he chuckled and said that most of the time we are either calling him a "toothpick" or telling him to "take a shower"....very funny.
Gotta run...off to Danang, Hue, and Hoi=An for the next four days.