Flotillas in the mist

Character ... Halong Bay.
Character ... Halong Bay. Photo: AFP

With dragon mythology and James Bond for company, Anthony Dennis cruises the ethereal landscape of Halong Bay, Vietnam, aboard its newest luxury junk.

It's a silvery-tinted dawn on Halong Bay. From the extreme comfort of my berth, which is larger than most hotel rooms, here aboard the Halong Violet, I've woken early. I'm flat out, not in the customary bunk but in a king-size four-poster bed, watching as, before me, a series of pinnacle-shaped islands protruding from the sea is unveiled like a slow-motion black and white movie.

Scarcely a ray of sun has penetrated the cabin but there is an ethereal quality to this sepia, yet spectacular, seascape. The captain is cruising at the gentlest of speeds so as to not disturb the passengers in their slumber, the engine a faint hum and an even fainter vibration as we circle the bay. Out there it's reminiscent of the Twelve Apostles on the Great Ocean Road back in Australia - multiplied, that is, a thousand-fold.

Nowhere in the world are there this many karst islands and nowhere else, or so it seems, are there quite as many cruise boats. There are 1966 limestone karst islands in Halong Bay. And, worryingly, as many as 400 cruise boats plying its crystal, calm waters, including this one, the newest, most luxurious of all, the Halong Violet, a "five-star junk" commissioned late last year.

Decorated in a faux "1930s Indochine-style", the boat has just six berths, making it also the most private of the more up-scale vessels servicing these waters. There is a restaurant, library and even a small gym. Our suite, "Dragon", has all of the accoutrements of a five-star hotel room, including a plasma TV with an extensive choice of movies, including virtually every James Bond film ever made.

As befitting a hotel room, there are soft white bathrobes and we even have our own balcony with chairs and a table overlooking the wheelhouse and providing uninterrupted views of Halong Bay. In one corner of the bathroom there's a spa bath but due to the indifferent water pressure on the boat, it takes about as long to fill as their rocky outcrops took to form. It's a rare gripe, however, since everything else is near perfect.

Indeed, the Halong Violet is testament to how far travel in Vietnam, once a rough-and-tumble destination ostensibly for backpackers, has progressed in terms of the sort of luxury experiences that you find in places such as Thailand. The operators of Halong Violet have plans for more luxury junks that will have even more comforts than this particular one and with heftier price tags for passengers.

In the meantime, it appears the Halong Violet is a hit. When some fellow passengers, a couple from San Francisco, first board the boat their reaction is to declare their disappointment at not having booked two nights. We're trying not to gloat since we've booked three days and two nights. It is, after all, more than a three-hour road trip between Hanoi and the World Heritage-listed Halong Bay.

At 8.30am the day before, we left our Hanoi hotel by private car, arranged through the cruise company, in order to rendezvous with the Halong Violet by noon. There is rarely a dull moment in Vietnam, especially on the chaotic roads where cars and trucks are overwhelmingly outnumbered by motorcycles, creating the environment for some hair-raising moments.

Along a section of freeway an hour or so outside of Hanoi the verge is populated, every 100 metres or so, by conical-hat-wearing women, their faces hidden behind cloth to shield them from vehicle fumes. They are selling large quantities of French-style baguettes, a direct legacy of Vietnam's colonial past.

Further on, we head into the industrial north and pass through soot-covered towns dwarfed by power stations. When we finally reach Halong Bay, we're ushered into a dockside cafe with other passengers from around the world taking luxury cruises on the bay while our luggage is sorted and then we're transferred seamlessly by tender to Halong Violet. There's a flotilla of boats bobbing about in the bay, a veritable festival of teak, all waiting to receive their human cargo for one-, two- or three-day cruises.

It's a subject of pride among the crew of the Halong Violet that not only is she the newest and most luxurious boat on Halong Bay but also the fastest, courtesy of its latest-generation engine. This means, as our boat manager explains, that the Halong Violet reaches Van Gia, a fishing village, half-an-hour before any other boat. Such is the level of competition in Halong Bay.

As we approach the village, a collection of brightly painted floating houses dwarfed by an amphitheatre of lofty karsts, we're grateful to witness it in near enough to its natural state. Villages such as Van Gia are home to a small number of people who continue to live on Halong Bay, which was designated a World Heritage area by UNESCO in 1994, based on its "outstanding scenic beauty complemented by its great biological interest".

Although Van Gia is an authentic fishing village, the residents benefit greatly from tourism. Because the karsts rise vertically from the sea, there's no land on which to erect a shed, let alone a house. For an hour or so a female resident rows us around the village in a traditional wooden boat, visiting a museum, funded by Norway, on the history of the village, as well as a floating schoolhouse with volunteer Vietnamese teachers from the mainland, the village cafe and even a pool hall on a fishing boat. Along the way, she scoops up rubbish floating in the bay.

I discover that this is a part of Vietnam that's steeped in mythology. "Ha Long" means "descending dragon" in Vietnamese, an allusion to a local legend that tells how a dragon emerged from the heavens to spit out thousands of pearls when Vietnam was under attack from foreign marauders. The pearls became myriad islands, creating a natural defence against the invaders. The karsts are formed when irregular sections of limestone are eroded by rain and soil and tectonic uplift. This process forms pinnacles, some as high as 1000 metres, as well as caves and passages.

Not far from here, and the location of an incident from more contemporary times, is the Gulf of Tonkin, the site in 1964 for what was, in effect, the trigger for the escalation of the Vietnam War. North Vietnamese naval vessels were said to have fired on a US naval ship, providing president Lyndon Johnson with a pretext to increase the US military involvement in the hostilities between the north and the south.

Today, happily, it's difficult to conceive a more tranquil place on Earth as we drift around the enclosed jade-coloured sea, weaving our way through what feels like a drowned city with limestone pillars for skyscrapers.

As dusk approaches, we return to the Halong Violet where we're welcomed home with a cocktail before retiring to our cabin to rest until dinner. And what a dinner it is. Halong Violet employs a superb chef, formerly a cook at one of Hanoi's leading hotels. His French-style food with Asian touches includes dishes such as pan-seared foie gras with apple, roasted lamb rack with merlot sauce and grilled beef with bordelaise.

The next day we're transferred to a smaller "day-boat", the Minh Quang, for sightseeing and a visit to a network of caves we will explore on foot and by kayak. We set out at 8.30am under the same overcast skies that greeted us yesterday. Eventually, a patch of blue emerges as we head across an unremittingly captivating seascape with the karsts bursting into colour and revealing the true tones of their craggy surfaces.

Atop one of the islets is a Buddhist pagoda, a rare human intrusion on the outcrops, juxtaposed with a mobile phone tower. It's so calm in the embrace of Halong Bay that it's hard to believe that we're surrounded by the South China Sea, though in gaps between the islets we occasionally see tankers at anchor.

Wherever we go we're circled by ospreys, which glide and soar on the currents, every now and then diving at fierce speed towards the surface of the water to snare fish they've seen from above. Later in the day, we transfer to kayaks to explore the network of caves for which Halong Bay is renowned. We paddle in and out of water-filled caves, emerging into giant, sunny lagoons enclosed by precipitous cliffs.

When we return to the Halong Violet later in the afternoon, we're welcomed by a smiling and waving waitress (dressed in a violet-coloured uniform, of course). On board we're served the mandatory pre-dinner cocktail.

Dinner itself is not far away but there's just enough time to linger in our cabin for another James Bond movie.

And unlike that poor couple from San Francisco, we've still got another night to spend on the Halong Violet.

Now, if we can only get that spa to fill.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Vietnam Airlines flies direct from Sydney to Ho Chi Minh City and to Hanoi. Jetstar flies to Ho Chi Minh City. Australians require a visa.

CRUISING THERE

Halong Violet is operated by a Vietnamese company, Cruise Halong, which also operates two other cruise boats, Halong Ginger and Halong Jasmine. A two-day, one-night cruise on the Halong Violet starts from about $709 for a twin-share cabin and includes accommodation, meals and tours. There's an additional charge for the transfer by van or private vehicle to and from Hanoi. See cruisehalong.com.

Cruise Halong trips can be booked through Active Travel, phone 9264 1231, see activetravel.com.au.

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