Trail of the unexpected: Kayaking in Vietnam

Paddle past pearls in Vietnam's Halong Bay.

Vietnam has had to put up with more than its fair share of intruders: the US, of course, and the French and Japanese before them. But peer back into history and this beleaguered country was repelling enemies when dragons still roamed the earth.

The legend goes that on the eve of a naval attack from China, the god-like Jade Emperor dispatched a family of dragons to protect Vietnam. Spitting countless pearls into the path of the invading fleet, the dragons caused the Chinese boats to founder. It was these same pearls – now transformed into towering limestone islands, or karsts – that I found myself gliding among, as the tropical sun slid into the mist.

An eagle soared overhead, the only sign of life in an eerily silent scene. Emerald-green waters lapped lazily into innumerable caves and grottoes, shaded by trees and shrubs clinging to the vertical walls. I was exploring Halong Bay in north-east Vietnam, a World Heritage site since 1994 – and a kayaker's dream.

Halong means "Descending Dragon", and no one can agree quite how many of the dragon's "pearls" dot Halong Bay – estimates vary from 1,600 islands (according to Unesco) to 1,969 (patriotically, the year of Ho Chi Minh's death), upwards to about 2,500. But each one seemed to be able to raise a gasp as it emerges from the haze, boasting an elegant arch, a dashing curve, intriguing inlets, a green-topped peak or delicate fingers of rock.

The French did their best to name every island during their century-long occupation. Their names include the obvious (Le Dragon, Le Boomerang), the fantastic (Le Pierrot, L'Etoile) and the downright wistful, for sailors stuck at the edge of an empire: La Cathédrale and Les Mamelles (island of breasts).

The core islands lie about 30 miles from the nearest port, separated from it by busy shipping lanes that are no place for dawdling kayaks. The easiest way to access the most beautiful islands was to join one of the overnight tourist boats that leave from Halong town every afternoon. I was lucky enough to be sailing on the Emeraude, a replica paddle steamer oozing colonial style from every inch of polished teak railing and gleaming brass fixture.

The Emeraude carries several two-person open kayaks on board, which allowed me to slip away while more well-heeled passengers were seeking bargains at a floating pearl farm. The water was as smooth as a pond, the sky utterly clear and – away from the boat – the nearby islands seemed to be nudging each other aside to welcome my paddle.

These limestone islands are the result of geological activity that has seen mountains rise up and be worn back down again by millennia of rain and seawater. The current limestone formations have been around only for the past 20,000 years or so, and are still slowly eroding. Real adventurers can arrange climbing expeditions to tackle overhanging cliffs, dropping safely into the water from the top. (Tour operators in Halong town or the heavily touristed Cat Ba island can help with this.)

Clattering through cool, dark caves at the shoreline is great fun, but spotting the decaying wrecks of two small boats delivers a frisson of fear. Rightly so. While my excursion felt completely safe, there have been reports of extremely strong currents at the some of the larger caves in Halong Bay.

Returning to the Emeraude, there was time for a brisk swim in the surprisingly chilly waters before the captain weighed anchor. Most Halong tours feature a stop to look at impressive (but somewhat touristy) caves or to climb upwards for a panoramic view of the bay. This can be a great excuse to stretch your legs or just to jump back in the kayak for another paddle. Either way, by the time your boat stops for the night, you'll be ready for a cold beer.

As the rumble of the Emeraude engines faded away, a higher pitched note started up and the Emeraude's tender sped off into the dusk. Twenty minutes later, it returned and almost immediately the passengers were summoned below for the freshest of seafood dinners, its ingredients sourced from a floating fishing village tucked around the headland. The prawns were an explosion of lemongrass and butter; an unnamed white fish melted in the mouth, and a typically French tarte au chocolat sealed the deal.

All that remained was to select a chair on the upper deck, sit back and watch the moon rise from behind Le Crapaud (the Toad) and cast its silvery light on La Limace (the Slug). Something told me that Halong's colonial cartographers were rather more immune to the bay's charms than its modern-day visitors.

With fish splashing in the night and the lights of tiny fishing boats flashing in the distance, I reflected on the periodical sightings of sea monsters in the area. It is rumoured that the great dragons that formed Halong Bay found it too beautiful to leave, making their home permanently in its placid waters. Nervous kayakers should take note.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Vietnam Airlines (020-3263 2062; vietnamairlines.com) flies non-stop from Gatwick to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City twice weekly. The writer travelled with Kuoni (01306 747002; kuoni.co.uk), which offers tailor-made tours to Vietnam.

More information

The Foreign Office warns of "a number of fatal boat accidents in Vietnam, including two accidents involving foreign nationals in Halong Bay". The advice says the Vietnamese government is reviewing safety standards on board boats.

News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
peopleReports that Brand could stand for Mayor on an 'anti-politics' ticket
News
The clocks go forward an hour at 1am on Sunday 30 March
news
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning? Apparently not.
News
Voluminous silk drawers were worn by Queen Victoria
newsThe silk underwear is part of a growing trade in celebrity smalls
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
footballMatch report: Real fight back to ruin Argentinian's debut
News
Candidates with surnames that start with an A have an electoral advantage
newsVoters are biased towards names with letters near start of alphabet
Arts and Entertainment
Isis with Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville)
TV
News
Rainbow List
Arts and Entertainment
Jay James
TVReview: Performances were stale and cheesier than a chunk of Blue Stilton left out for a month
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
Gap announced its same-store sales were down 6 per cent in August, and 3 per cent in September
fashionAlexander Fury explains where Gap is going wrong
News
Bruce, left, with Cream bandmates Ginger Rogers, centre, and Eric Clapton in 1967
people
Sport
football
News
politics
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Junior Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    IT Systems Analyst / Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Day In a Page

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker