Glorious Hạ Long Bay- with her splendid limestone karsts like giant emeralds, her vast azure skies, and her deep green waters, is not merely one of the seven natural wonders of the modern world; many consider this the most beautiful place on Earth. To cruise past the mighty silver cliffs and ululating hills, deep green on top and as twisted as a serpent's tail, is to feel a deep peace and a sense of awe. Indeed, the very air seems alive with enchantment.
Hạ Long Bay was formed, according to legend, in ancient times when Vietnam was young. Invaders from the North came to sully the sweetness of this spectacular green veldt. Outraged by this slight, the Jade Emperor, the Lord of Heaven, sent dragons to incinerate the enemies with their fire and giant emeralds, seen today as the glorious green mounds that speckle the waters of this vast bay.
The quiet majesty of Hạ Long Bay... Titop Island
Take a cruise with luxurious cabins, powerful air conditioners, a fully equipped bar, and meals of crab, pasta, chicken, and fish. There's a sundeck, lovely old fashioned rigging festoons the wooden mast, and a great many small green trees in potplants on all decks. Furthermore, there are many secluded little tables for dining with your sweetheart, and just to add a touch of excitement to your cruise, the boats often sink.
Your first stop is the floating primary school, with delightful little blue huts with red roofs, replete with communist flags. It's located in a sheltered bay encircled by tall daggers of green tipped rock. You'll take a canoe to explore the many splendid bays with their vertical jungle walls, and you'll pass through several low caves, dripping and echoing mysteriously, which lead to further jewelled bays, hidden in the very centre of the islands.
As evening falls you'll reach Titop Island, a small green pyramid with a strip of white sand covered in tourists and backpackers. Ascend 487 steps to the 360 degree lookout for Hạ Long Bay's most stunning view. As the dying sun paints the sky in russet and purple, your boat will anchor here overnight. Eagles flitter between karsts, and their unearthly cries rolling away across the bay accentuate the remoteness, making you and your partner feel like the only two people in a glorious Eden -never a bad thing at all.
View from Titop Island
Surrounded by the elegant karsts, black against the star-jewelled sky, what could possibly disturb such serenity? Merely two hundred boat generators thumping from all directions, but the scene is so magical, you'll barely notice.
Arise early and you'll enjoy Tai-Chi lessons and a filling Western-style breakfast, then you'll visit the floating pearl farm, with its tiny pearl museum and jewellery shop. You'll be invited to open a mollusc to find a silver pearl.
Your last attraction is Sung Sot (Surprise) Cave. Enter the dull, gloomy interior, walk through a narrow, twisting passage and you'll encounter the surprise -a vast cavern with soaring ceilings, bathed in artful yellow, red, and purple lighting, illuminating adorable natural sculptures, twisting pillars, delicate traceries, and hanging shrouds.
The Vietnamese have a name for every formation. The Buddha, the elephant, the tortoise, the smiling lions...and the famous phallus, artfully lit in brilliant pink. "Many people think this looks like a finger," says the guide, to general laughter. And that's the Hạ Long Bay experience -confronted by such magnificence, the heart soars with joy. Well, mine did, anyway.