Today we spent a full day in Halong Bay, out cruising in kayaks, visiting more caves and visiting a pearl farm. The moment we arrived in Halong Bay we knew we were glad to have booked the two night, 3 day cruise, rather than anything shorter – because without the second night, you only get two or three hours on two successive days to see anything, as the rest of our group was experiencing. With the extra day, we had a lot more time to relax and see the bay, and truly enjoyed the time off the boat.
In our group we were the only people to be spending an extra night at sea, so we were taken by a separate day boat out into a quieter part of the bay. There, we met another couple from a different junk that were doing the same thing. Unfortunately for them, but lucky for us, they weren’t interested in kayaking, so Jamie and I had a private kayak tour of the fishing villages, caves and bay with our lovely guide, Kiew. We spent about 2 hours on the water in the morning, paddling through the surreal, peacful waters of the bay, away from the crowded junks. We visited villages of over 300 people living out there on floating houses in the quiet areas of the bay – men shaving, girls gossiping, fishermen, and kids in school – imagine that, saying ‘I went to Halong Bay Floating Village Primary School!’. There were even local dogs, living on the water – mainly to protect the oyster/pearl farms set up. I asked our guide where they get their supplies – there are not backyards, no shops, just mountains of unfarmable limestone and cool, grey clouds covering the sky. It turns out that daily, the villages were brought foods, supplies and anything else they need from the markets. And they have electricity, phones, and satellite television, too! It was beautiful, but I’m not sure I could cope with living on a tiny floating house in Halong Bay for any longer than a week. Very quiet!
Kiaw took us through a ‘young persons adventure cave’ – which was a tiny opening in one of the limetone mountains that you couldn’t see through to the other side. At first we were a little concerned, because Kiaw couldn’t even locate the cave for a while! But he found it, handed us our head-torches, and we slowly, surely and quietly paddled our way through the pitch-black cave, about 75 metres through to the other side. And wow – we were in a private lagoon, all to ourselves. The water in there was even calmer than outside, and there was absolute silence. A huge, huge area, but unless you were paddling into it, or flying over it, you would have no idea the lagoon existed within the huge mountains.
After lunch back on the boat, we had a rest before taking off on our own adventure, just Jamie and I. We paddled for another 45 minutes and found a few caves for ourselves, and another pristine lagoon that was empty. Very calming and very quiet, and it was really nice to get some time to ourselves rather than being shipped around with 20 other people all day. We made our way back to the boat soon after for our trip to the pearl farm, on the way back to the main boat.
The pearl farm was, well, a real pearl of a time! I have never been interested in pearls as a stone/gem/jewellery option. But we got to see this entire section of Halong Bay dedicated to making some of the finest pearls in the world, and see how it’s done! Here’s some fun facts for you – the average pearl cultivation takes at least 4 years. Two years for the oyster to grow naturally, then the ‘pearl seed’ is placed within the oyster and grown for a further 18 months or more, depending on the size or type of pearl you are after. If you wait for a pearl to grow ‘naturally’ without the insemination of the pearl seed, then you will be waiting for a shocking 150 years! So four years doesn’t seem like much after you hear that! Depending on the oyster, you can sometimes implant more than one pearl seed and get more bang for your buck I guess. However, statistically only 30% of the oysters will end up making the pearl, and then only 10% of that group will create pearls considered suitable for jewellery. So it’s a lot of hard work for very little reward – unless you really like pearls, I guess!
Eventually we were on our way back to the boat, and we were knackered. It had been a while since either of us had kayaked, so that’s our exercise for the month! Back to the cruise to have dinner and drinks with the rest of the passengers on board, before an early night. Tomorrow, we’re back to Hanoi and straight onto an overnight train to Hoi An. Halong Bay was beautiful, but really rather cold. A chilly 15 degrees or less, I think. So bring on the sunshine as we head south down the coast of Vietnam!