Friday, 15 November 2019
DISCOVER VIETNAM EDITOR CHOICE NEED TO KNOW

Exploring the wonderful HALONG BAY and the amazing PERFUME PAGODA

HALONG BAY

 

Halong Bay is a magnificent seascape of myriad outcrops, caves, and sandy coves. Sailing past the evocatively shaped islets and dramatic caves is a magical experience.

According to local legend, the bay was formed when a gigantic dragon – ha long means descending dragon – plunged into the Gulf of Tonkin, and created the many islets and rock formations by lashing its tail to form a barrier against invaders. Spread across a 580-sq-mile (1,500-sq-km) area, the bay has more than 2,000 pinnacle shaped limestone and dolomite outcrops scattered across it, the highest concentration found anywhere in the world. The spectacular karst topography is the product of selective erosion over the millennia.

At least an entire day can be spent exploring the islands and grottos, many of which house religious shrines. Many of the caves have floodlights to illuminate the stalagmites and stalactites. Plenty of tour operators in Hanoi organize excursions to Halong Bay, lasting between one and several days. Most of the best-known sites lie in the western part and these are often crowded. It is possible to charter a private boat from Cat Ba Island (p207), hire a knowledgeable guide, and sail around the less visited but equally beautiful areas of the shimmering bay, making for a quieter experience.

At least an entire day can be spent exploring the islands and grottos, many of which house religious shrines. Many of the caves have floodlights to illuminate the stalagmites and stalactites. Plenty of tour operators in Hanoi organize excursions to Halong Bay, lasting between one and several days. Most of the best-known sites lie in the western part and these are often crowded. It is possible to charter a private boat from Cat Ba Island (p207), hire a knowledgeable guide, and sail around the less visited but equally beautiful areas of the shimmering bay, making for a quieter experience.

  • Hang Dau Go

Named Grotte des Merveilles or Cave of Marvels by the French in the 19th century, Hang Dau Go is full of strangely formed stalactites and stalagmites, enchantingly lit with green and blue colored floodlights. One of the most famous and beautiful caves in Halong Bay, Hang Dau Go or Hidden Timber Cave is located.

on Dau Go Island, on the way to Cat Ba Island. The huge cave has three chambers reached via 90 steps. Its name dates from the 13th century when General Tran Hung Dao used it to hide his lethally sharpened metal stakes in the battles against the Mongolians. The weapons were later planted in the shallow waters near the shore to destroy enemy Mongol fleets.

  • Hang Thien Cung

Also on Dau Go Island, Hang Thien Cung or the Celestial Palace Grotto is part of the same cave system as Hang Dau Go. It was discovered only in the mid-1990s. Floodlights in pink, green, and blue softly illuminate the sparkling stalactites that hang from the high ceiling.

  • Hang Sung Sot

Aptly known as the Cave of Awe, Hang Sung Sot is located on Bo Hon Island, which the French knew as the Isle de la Surprise, and is the most visited cave in Halong Bay. The first cavern in the three-chambered Sung Sot features a large, phallus-shaped rock, lit in lurid pink, which is regarded as a fertility symbol. Other formations include a Buddha and a tortoise. Those in the inner chamber, named the Serene Castle, are particularly fascinating, seeming to come alive when the reflections of the water outside play upon them – they are said to resemble a group of sentries conversing. The top of the cave leads to a vantage point with great views of the junks and sampans below. Nearby, Hang Bo Nau or Pelican Cave, a favorite among photographers, draws visitors for the fantastic views it offers across the bay.

  • Dong Tam Cung

A massive karst fissure discovered only in the mid- the 1990s, Dong Tam Cung or Three Palaces consists of three chambers, each of which is packed with stalactites and stalagmites. All three grottos of Dong Tam Cung are illuminated by strategically placed spotlights, which emphasize the strange, massed, carrot-shaped array of stalactites. The opinion is divided, but some consider Dong Tam Cung to be even more impressive than Hang Dau Go.

  • Dao Tuan Chau

A large island to the southwest of Bai Chay, Tuan Chau is the starting point for many tours of the bay and is reached by a short road from the mainland. It has a sprawling recreation complex, a marina, two white sandy beaches, and several restored French colonial villas.

  • Dao Titop

The main attraction of this island is its isolated beach, which is very popular with swimmers. Visitors can enjoy watersports facilities at the small beach, including swimming, parasailing, and kayaking among the tranquil waters. It is also worth climbing up about 400 steps to the top of the island, where there is the most spectacular view of Halong Bay.

PERFUME PAGODA

 

Nestled in forested limestone cliffs on Nui Huong Tich or Fragrant Vestige Mountain, and overlooking the Suoi Yen River, Perfume Pagoda is one of Vietnam’s most spectacular sights.

The pagoda is actually a complex of around 30 Buddhist shrines. Each year, during the Perfume Pagoda Festival, thousands of Buddhists embark on a pilgrimage up the mountain, praying for absolution, good health, and, in the case of childless couples, a baby.

  • Highlights

Den Trinh Pagoda is the first stop on the mountain, where all pilgrims are required to “register” or pray and ask for acceptance of their journey up to Huong Tich Pagoda, the most fascinating shrine set deep in a cavern in the mountainside. The steep walk up to Huong Tich takes at least an hour. The phrase “Most Beautiful Cavern under the Southern Sky” is carved near its entrance, where 120 steps lead down into the cave. Dedicated to Quan Am, the incense-filled Huong Tich has several gilded figurines of the Buddha and Quan Am.

Also known as the Heavenly Kitchen Pagoda, the 18th-century Thien Tru rises through three levels on the mountainside. An elegant triple-roofed bell pavilion stands in front of the temple and a statue of Quan Am dominates the main altar inside. Giai Oan, or the Undoing Injustice Pagoda, is popular with pilgrims seeking purification and justice, while one of the holiest shrines, Tien Son Pagoda, is set in a cave and contains four ruby statues.

EXPERIENCE MORE

 

  • Cuc Phuong National Park

Established as Vietnam’s first national park in 1962, Cuc Phuong covers 86 sq miles (223 sq km) of largely primary tropical forest and is home to over 100 species of mammals and reptiles and more than 300 types of birds. The park is also famous for its range of flora, which includes soaring 1,000-year-old trees as well as medicinal plants.

One of the main highlights at the park is the Endangered Primate Rescue Center, which cares for animals that have been rescued from hunters. It also promotes breeding and conservation programs and rehabilitates endangered primates for release into the wild. The center is home to a wide variety of primates, including langur, gibbon, loris, and others, making it a great place to see these animals at close range.

Cuc Phuong has excellent trekking opportunities and other attractions such as waterfalls and a botanical garden. There are also Muong villages nearby that offer visitors overnight stays.

  • Halong City

Formed in 1994 with the official amalgamation of the towns of Bai Chay and Hon Gai, Halong City is bisected by the Cua Luc straits, which are linked by a suspension bridge. Located to the west of the straits, Bai Chay is an affluent tourist town, home to several tour operators, hotels, and restaurants. For most visitors, this area holds little appeal except as a convenient place to stay and eat. East of the bridge, the town of Hon Gai is the more historic part of Halong City. Although there are a few hotels and restaurants here, the area’s wealth comes from industry, particularly the huge opencast coal mines that dominate the coast east of Cua Luc.

Beyond the docks is Nui Bai Tho or Poem Mountain, one of the main attractions of Halong City. The limestone mountain has earned its name from the weathered inscriptions on its sides, written in praise of the beauty of Halong Bay. The earliest of these is said to have been composed by King Le Thanh Tong in 1468. On the northern lee of the mountain stands Long Tien Pagoda, Halong City’s most colorful and interesting religious site.

  •  Bai Tu Long Bay

An island-peppered stretch of shallow coastal waters, Bai Tu Long Bay may not be quite as celebrated as Halong Bay, but it is just as spectacular. With hundreds of karst outcrops, tiny islets, a few large islands, and lovely beaches, it is less crowded and more pristine than Halong Bay.

The area offers few tourist facilities, and as a result, most visitors prefer to join a tour from Hanoi, spending the night on board a boat and exploring the bay. Another option is to drive from Hon Gai to Bai Tu Long Bay, passing through Cam Pha and Cua Ong. The huge, opencast coal mines on the way are quite a sight. From here, boats may be chartered to explore the outlying reaches of the bay.

The largest, most developed island in the bay is Van Don, accessible by road and sea from the industrial port of Cua Ong. Gorgeous beaches and dense mangrove swamps line the southeast coast of the island, making it a popular destination. Most of the accommodations in the Bai Tu Long area are concentrated in Van Don’s main town, the colorful fishing port-town of Cai Rong. The outermost of the three islands south of Van Don is Quan Lan. The main attraction here is Bai Bien, a lovely white­sand beach, and one of the few places past Cai Rong with facilities for an overnight stay.

facilities for an overnight stay. Co To is the farthest island off Cai Rong. The ferry journey takes about five hours each way. With a small beach and simple accommodations at Co To the village, it is a quiet spot. About 12 miles (20 km) from Cai Rong is Bai Tu Long National Park. Spread across Ba Mun Island and its surrounds, this park has fascinating marine ecosystems and rare animals and plants.

  • Cat Ba Island

The largest island in a scenic archipelago of more than 350 islets and islands, Cat Ba’s main appeal is its relative isolation and its waterfalls, freshwater lakes, mangrove swamps, hills, and coral reefs. Unfortunately, Cat Ba Town is becoming increasingly polluted and crowded. Most boats dock here as it is possible to stay overnight and eat in some comfort. There is little to recommend it except as a gateway to Cat Ba National Park, the island’s main attraction.

In 1986, in order to safeguard the island’s varied habitats, nearly half of Cat Ba was given the status of a national park. Famous for its rugged landscape, with craggy limestone outcrops, lakes, caves, grottos, and thick mangroves, it has an astonishing range of flora. More than 800 species have been cataloged. The forests sustain fauna, such as wild boars, deer, macaques, and a large number of bird and reptile species. The park is renowned for its community of endangered Cat Ba langurs. Today, their number is estimated at a dismal 50 animals.

The park also offers treks and camping for the adventurous. Facilities are limited, and visitors need to bring their own equipment and supplies. The shortest and most popular trek climbs to the 656­ft (200­m) summit of Ngu Lam peak, from where there are panoramic views. A longer hike (4–6 hours) leads through the tree­canopied interior, past Ech Lake, to the hamlet of Viet Hai. From here, boats can be chartered back to Cat Ba Town. Boats may be chartered from Cat Ba to explore Halong Bay or the smaller but picturesque Lan Ha Bay, to its northeast, which has tiny, exclusive beaches that can be visited for a small fee.

 

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