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.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Sport
The giant banner displayed by Legia Warsaw supporters last night
football Polish side was ejected from Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
News
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
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
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Graduate Sales Executive / Junior Sales Exec

    £18k + Uncapped Commission (£60k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Sales Exe...

    Web Developer / Software Developer

    £25 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Web Developer / Software Developer is needed ...

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Day In a Page

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone