In the event, however, I was pleasantly surprised. Halong Bay, in my opinion, fully deserves its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is indeed spectacular, even on a dull day!! The sheer scale of it is awesome - about 2000 limestone islets (I believe the correct geological name is karsts) in an area of approximately 1500 square kilometres. Obviously, we saw only a fraction of this in the few hours when we cruised from Halong City to Cat Ba Island, but we were mesmerised by the beauty of the place. Yes, there were plenty of tourists and fleets of boats similar to ours. We met up with them at intervals throughout the day - the obligatory kayaking stop, the grotto visit, the floating village, etc., but, in between, we motored gently between these magnificent rocks and felt an incredible sense of wonder and of our insignificance in the great scheme of things. Never was this sense more heightened than at dusk when, with the sun disappearing behind the rocks and the temperature falling, the feeling was almost eerie.
Throughout the day, we were also struck by the simplicity of the lives of the people who are born, are educated, work and die on the floating villages in Halong Bay. Traditionally making their living from fishing, increasingly they rely on income from tourists. Inevitably, their way of life is changing - children are going to schools on the mainland, some young adults choose to leave and re-locate to cities, but our guide assured us that there are enough youngsters who want to maintain and build on the traditions handed down to them to ensure the survival of these communitiies.
Halong Bay can be an expensive place to visit, so we felt fortunate to stumble on a really cheap way to do it! We needed to get from Hanoi to Cat Ba Island and went to a travel agent near our hotel in Hanoi to explore the options. There are various bus/boat/bus or train/boat/bus combinations available, but one of them meant that we would get a cruise around Halong Bay en route. We were taken by bus to Halong City and then, in effect, we joined one of the two-day cruises (the ones where guests pay an arm and a leg to spend a night on board) for the whole day and were dropped off on Cat Ba Island in the evening to be bussed the short distance into town. This trip cost us $18 each which we thought was a bit of a bargain when you see how much they charge for a two-day (or even a one-day) cruise!!
You can see some photos of Halong Bay here.