Author – John Thurgar SC MBE OAM RFD. (John is a qualified and current Paddle Australia – Senior Sea Instructor and Assessor.
Ha Long Bay (where the dragon descends into the sea) is located on the far north-east coast of Vietnam near the border with China and lies just south of the Tropic of Cancer. Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam with an unofficial population of six million, is three and a half hours inland by road. I recently conducted a reconnaissance of the area with a view that members of Paddle Australia may wish to conduct an expedition in that area sometime in the future.
Vietnam is a land with a rich civilization, spectacular sights, breathtaking mountains and a magnificent coastline. For the sea kayaker, the jewel in the crown is the UNESCO World Heritage listed Ha Long Bay. It is undoubtedly the natural wonder of Vietnam.
The chart and map I used for navigation were local productions and limited in the information contained therein. It was essential to develop a Navigation Data Sheet and carefully plot each leg of my journey. This was important as many of the islands are close together and are rather large and imposing. It is easy to get disorientated within their confines, especially when night paddling. Paddling at night in this wonderland is awesome.
The ‘Bay’ consists of over 3,000 incredible limestone islands which rise out of the luke-warm emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. About half of the islands have names and the others do not. They vary in size from picturesque ‘rock sculptures’ to islands large enough to house holiday destination resorts and national parks which are in fact ‘sanctuaries’ for endangered species of flora and fauna. Some of the islands have small sandy beaches and grottoes which are the result of centuries of wind and wave action. Many of the islands have large caverns which have to be seen to be believed. They are illuminated and their names reflect the contents. An example is ‘Cave of Marvels’ and contains three chambers, once visited, you surely would have to agree that it is appropriately named. Another is ‘Drum Grotto’, because when the wind blows through its many stalactites and stalagmites, you swear you can hear the sound of distant drums beating.
The largest island within the group is Cat Ba (354 square kms). It has rugged craggy features and was traditionally the home of fishermen. Nowadays there is a steadily growing tourist industry. The visitors are enchanted by the rocky terrain, cliffs, small freshwater lakes and pockets of jungle. On the island there is a national park which is home to 32 types of mammals and 70 species of birds.
The ‘bay’ is also home to many Vietnamese who live ‘onboard’ floating pontoon type structures and they make their living from catching fish, selling snacks, and renting out nautical equipment to tourists.
Sea kayaking through the karsts has become popular over the past five years and is following in the already established tradition of Krabi in southern Thailand.
The most popular option available for most kayakers is to join a group ‘tour’ offered by one of the many travel agencies operating out of Hanoi and Ha Long township. The trips are usually two or three days long with air conditioned accommodation and meals onboard the ‘junk’. (boat) The equipment they use is not ‘state of the art’ as they ‘rent it’ from another operator who has the kayaks piled up on a floating perform near one of the islands. It really is for ‘day use’ and is not for the serious adventurer. But the price is cheap and it appeals to the average ‘backpacker’.
Nowadays the independent traveler can plan their own trip. You can catch a bus from Hanoi to Ha Long town and then a ferry to either Cat Ba or to a smaller island named Ti Tov where there are sea kayaks for rent either on the island itself or from a nearby ‘floating sea kayak hire shop’ (have an interpreter available or pre-arrange the gear). A warning – it usually is difficult to source equipment within Ha Long Bay. I had to take all my ‘specialist sea kayak gear’ and stow most of it in the hatches. No one seems to want to co-operate with you to find what you want. They all want to steer you toward a travel company. The equipment on offer is either the inflatable ‘sit on top’ double kayak or standard plastic double kayaks. The paddles are the heavy aluminium shafted style with ‘clunky’ blades and the PFD’s are of a bulky Type 2 variety. They do not offer single sea kayaks or spraydecks or any other specialist sea kayak equipment. Make sure you come prepared and always carry out your equipment serviceability checks when selecting all items. They meet only basic standards and they are not consistent with Australian requirements. If you are not an experienced paddler go in a group and have an experienced Trip Leader/Instructor with you. For example, the only single SK I could rent had no all-round decklines, no thigh braces, no foot braces, no pump (of any description) etc. I think you catch my drift.
The waters of the Gulf of Tonkin are indeed emerald coloured. Within the confines of the harbours the water is polluted and becomes much cleaner further out from the shore. The Government has set limits on the total number of overnight junks which can operate within the Bay. The toilets and waste water from the junks empty, you guessed it, into the Bay as well.
The main area where people sea kayak in the wet season has significant protection from the effects of the open sea. The average temperature is around 38 degrees Celsius with high humidity. This creates unusual conditions for the serious kayaker who wishes to undertake a multiple day expedition without a support craft (junk). I found that I had to roll my single fiberglass kayak about every fifteen minutes to avoid overheating. Also the long term effect of the heat, humidity and almost constant contact with the sea water meant that my skin ended up at the end of the day looking ‘like a crinkly white prune’. As you would expect the requirement for lots of fresh drinking water on board the kayak is essential. You can camp on some of the beaches and there are hostels and hotels available on Cat Ba which you can use as a ‘base’ and make multiple day trips out from. There is also the option to catch a lift on a ferry boat out from Ha Long or Cat Ba and get dropped-off and then paddle back to your ‘base’.
I found that some of the island rock outcrops do offer some shade from the hot sun under the cliff line. However you may have to share the cool space with other local fishermen who have dropped their fishing nets out in the morning and are waiting to pull up their catch in the evening and who have the same idea.
The tides within Ha Long Bay are diurnal and the tidal range is close to 2m during Spring tides. Tidal races and overfalls are not encountered in the main tourist sea kayak region. The biggest potential problem is from the wind should it come up. It gets ‘channeled’ between the rock islands, especially the large ones, and one then encounters the range of associated problems that come with violent downdrafts etc.
On most islands there are sea caves on or near water level. They range in size and in the smallest you will find tiny Buddhist shrines built into them but as previously mentioned the bigger islands have large magnificent caverns located within their interior and are reached up stair cases from the landings. They offer a great opportunity to get out of the kayak and stretch your legs.
All in all Ha Long Bay deserves its reputation as a breathtaking World Heritage sea kayak experience. For the experienced kayaker it is not a technically difficult or challenging paddle but its reward is in the spectacular scenery and the discovery of ‘hidden aspects’ of the Vietnamese culture, history, traditions and flora & fauna not seen anywhere else in the world.