Halong Bay Photos – Views from a Landmark

I’ve mentioned that Halong Bay, Vietnam, is a conundrum for travelers concerned about their impact on sensitive areas. This time, let me take you a bit further into the sights of this UNESCO World Heritage site. Here are a few Halong Bay photos I didn’t get to in my original post. And these photos are the real thing, not Photoshopped and HDR-modified into cartoonish caricatures of reality (one of my travel pet peeves I’ll dive into at a later point).

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A pretty view from the top of our boat headed toward the popular spots.

At any given time, there’s an absolute fleet of vessels headed to and from Halong Bay’s most-popular spots. Here’s our view of it as we head into the karst islands.

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Some of the other passengers on our boat, drinking in the sites.

The small ships carting passengers all over range from opulent to barely afloat. Ours looked better inside than it did from the outside.

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And here’s our boat! Or is it a ship? It seems too small to be a ship, but to big to be a boat. And not quite snooty enough to b a yacht. I dunno.

Reaching many of the destinations requires a small boat to cart us in from the larger boat. This gave me a chance to snap a nice shot of our boat/ship/floating thing.

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Two guys making a living in Halong Bay.

This is one of my favorite Halong Bay photos – a bit of quiet away surrounded by chaos. I’m not sure what these guys are up to … but it’s definitely a nice moment to witness.

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This dog has to be frustrated – there is nowhere to bury a bone.

You’ll hear a lot about the floating market. It’s kind of a letdown, especially after some time in Vietnam conditions you to equate “market” with “place to buy anything from poop chutes to bulk cinnamon to sea cucumbers to textiles.” This was pretty much a floating ramshackle convenience store.

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Sunlight among the islands.

Sunlight reacts very nicely with the tall, sheer mountains bursting out of the water. I shudder to think what sort of lens flare J.J. Abrams would add to his personal stash of Halong Bay photos.

Song Sot Cave is super-cool. Enormous and dramatic.
Song Sot Cave is super-cool. Enormous and dramatic.

Some of my favorite Halong Bay photos are from Sung Sot Cave, an enormous show cave. But I really longed for a look into the undeveloped parts of the cave. I notice that Asian countries haven’t latched onto the adventurous side of caving. People like me love getting dirty and seeing caves as they really are.

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Heh, heh, heh,

If you don’t know why I think this photo is awesome, you probably haven’t plunged into the depths of my terrible sense of humor.

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Here’s a good idea of the scope of Sun Sot.

This is a huge cave, and it’s lit very well to score some sweet photos.

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Meanwhile, behind the scenes …

I alluded in a previous post to booming construction to a sensitive area. The signs are all there …

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I just love snapping photos of boats.

I snapped this shot on the way to a pearl farm. The pearl farm was fairly cool.

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More of that dramatic sunlight.

The light and hazy sea air are just so inviting for a camera.

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Spotted on our hike around Cat Ba island.

We spent a night in Cat Ba City, which is on … wait for it …  Cat Ba Island. I didn’t take enough photos of the city. It was a really cool experience, especially when we wound up wandering through a neighborhood. We hiked around a good bit, and I spotted this cool scene from the top of a seaside cliff.

Well, those are my favorite Halong Bay photos!

Halong Bay: Why You Shouldn’t Go – and Why You Should

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You can see why Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site. And why it needs protection.

Halong Bay isn’t quite Lake-Havasu-On-Spring-Break crowded. But it’s not far off.

By nightfall of our first day, we’re anchored among hundreds of other boats holding anywhere from 20 to 100 passengers. Some look fresh from the factory, while others sport worn, weathered wood and a distinctly "seen better days" look. Our Christina Cruise is somewhere between – our stateroom features two oil paintings of Asian women dressed in -- well, barely anything. Still, the shower works (just don’t hog the water).

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And now you get a glimpse of the problem with Halong Bay. This is nowhere near as crowded as it gets.

Boats aren’t the point, though. People come to Halong Bay to see the stuff of National Geographic articles and UNESCO Heritage site beauty. The boats? They’re just the means.

The Big Problem with Halong Bay

And that’s exactly why there’s so many boats – the karst islands popping out of the water are greenery-covered marvels, rare resources that deserve care and respect.

Which is exactly why there needs to be fewer boats.

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Sung Sot is an impressive if over-developed show cave.

I feel like a hypocrite saying this: Because I’m on one of the boats, each one of them spewing fumes from engines and generators. Halong Bay and its tours are big bucks for Vietnam, employing guides and crews -- bringing people to locations they’d not reach otherwise.

I don’t know how to solve this problem. Fewer, bigger boats? Restrictions on how many are allowed to operate versus a Wild West free-for-all? I don’t know. But Vietnam needs to figure out how to preserve and protect Halong Bay. You can see the high volume of traffic has on the islands, from murky water to piles of trash washing up on beaches.

Halong Bay is More than Scenery

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Halong Bay equals jobs for locals.

Here’s the thing about Halong Bay – the karst islands are beautiful. Sung Sot is a very cool experience, even though it’s way overdeveloped for those who prefer real caving to show caves. (One of my suggestions for improvement: Make it easier to get around the outskirts of Cat Ba City so those who are so inclined can do some real caving in the less-developed caves.)

But my favorite part of spending two-and-half days in Halong Bay was spending a day in Cat Ba City. During our November visit, it was low season. Cat Ba City and its many hotels were all but deserted.

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A look at the Cannon Park overlooking Cat Ba City in Halong Bay.

We just wandered the city and its outskirts (be sure to check the hilltop canon fort – it’s well worth the walk). We strolled along some beaches. All that was nice, but what I enjoyed most was getting lost in a neighborhood behind the Cat Ba market. One moment, we’re checking out fresh squid and dried mushrooms – the next, we’re wandering past people’s homes.

As I always do in Asia, I drew a lot of curious glances. But everyone waved and smiled as we passed their homes. The neighborhood was densely packed. Neighbors can smell each other’s cooking, hear each other singing karaoke and toss the occasional errant soccer ball back out of their yard. It seemed like a very "all for one" environment, with people far less closed off from each other than my neighborhood in Arizona.

Ha Long Bay Stateroom
Nothing like oil paintings of barely covered Asian girls in your cabin!

I know, it’s odd that a stroll through a neighborhood is my favorite memory of Halong Bay – better than cruising the island on a battered mountain bike with a bunch of people from Christina Cruise.

Should You Go to Halong Bay?

UNESCO doesn’t name just anything a World Heritage Site. And I have yet to visit one that isn’t worth seeing.

And there’s the conundrum. Going to Halong Bay made me part of the maelstrom of pollution, part of the proliferation of boats clogging the area. I voted with my dollar that the status quo is OK, and I still have mixed feelings about this. I’m an imperfect traveler trying to strike a balance between a desire to experience things and a desire to leave a smaller footprint.

I have no easy answer to this. That’s just the way it is sometimes. All I can hope, at this point, is that Vietnam realizes what it has in Halong Bay. And that it makes the hard choices for us.

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South Korea Destination: Manjanggul Lava Tube

A slow-shutter look at Majanngul Lava Tube

I can wax poetic about a lava tube all day long. There’s just something cool about walking where glowing lava once flowed. When I found out there was a lava tube on Jeju Island in South Korea, I had to go.

The quest to find Manjanggul Lava Tube is why Sarah and I took a city bus out into the countryside of the island known as the Hawaii of South Korea. We hopped off the bus and two miles up a road. We left the sea behind and headed into a forest of shady trees and huge spiders.

And lava tubes. Lots of them, only a few of them fully mapped and likely many left undiscovered.

But we’re headed to one that’s certainly well discovered. Manjanggul is a well-known attraction, judging from the steady flow of traffic along the road. Taxis honk at us, hoping to take us the rest of the way. But we’re walkers – we decline every few moments with what we hope is a polite head-shake and wave.

And we come to the parking lot. We pay an entry fee of less than $2 – a spectacular deal for a 30-minute walk underground.

Another look at Majanggul Lava Tube.

By this time, I’d been in South Korea long enough to expect even a lava tube to be a bit well-developed. As I feared, Manjanggul is a bit too regular, tame and paved to slake my thirst for the shadowy depths of a former volcanic hot spot. It’s certainly nothing like the Ape Cave lava tube in Cougar, Washington.

On the other hand, Manjanggul is grand, with a ceiling that arches high above. So far, researchers have plumbed about 50,000 feet of it. Only about 3,500 feet are open to the public, though.

It’s nice and damp inside Manjanggul, with some nice lighting effects. The flow of traffic never seems to stop, so you won’t experience the solitude that you can in more rugged, remote lava tubes. But the grandeur that earned Manjanggul status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site makes it well worth the trip to South Korea and to Jeju Island. If you’re creative with camera settings, you can also snag some nice photos.


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