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Published on December 16, 2009

I was sitting at work, diligently updating my Facebook profile, when I noticed an old friend had posted a photo album titled “On Halong Bay.” I had two hours until my first meeting, so I clicked through the picture selection. I was three photos deep before I was on, searching for flights and planning my next trip.

Famous for its breath-taking labyrinth of limestone karsts, Halong Bay sits in the Gulf of Tonkin and is one of five UNESCO world heritage sites in Vietnam. Although tourist interest in this unique seascape is skyrocketing, it remains “relatively” unaffected by human presence. And though it’s been in existence for about 20 million years, it took Facebook 3-minutes to put it on my radar.Two months later we would be hopping a 5am flight from Bangkok to Hanoi.

The trip was arranged with three close friends visiting Southeast Asia for the first time. I spent a week showing them around my home of Bangkok; visiting street vendors for cheap, tasty Thai food and tasteless t-shirts. Seven days in Bangkok, my friends fully recovered from jet-lag, we were up to the next stage of our journey. Luckily (for me) they had a bit of a bankroll and were travelling on a comfortable budget.We decided to book a private junk for the cruise through Halong Bay to avoid being paired with screeching toddlers or lame tourists.

We were met at the airport by a personal driver; transportation was included in the $400/person package we’d booked for a 3-day, 2-night cruise. I slept most of the ride, reportedly missing “gorgeous country side scenery” and awoke as we pulled up to the Halong Bay harbor. The shoreline was teaming with old Chinese junks, big wooden beautiful boats, many with dragon adorning the prow; homage to the literal translation of Halong Bay, “Descending Dragon” Bay.”

We boarded and put our bags into the sleeping compartments, each elegantly decorated and complete with a private bathroom and porthole overlooking the sea.We set sail almost immediately, or rather, we set motor, as the thin red sails stayed wound at the mast; flimsy decorations really, lending an air of majesty to the boat but would do little to power the wooden beast across the bay.

Leaving the congestion of the harbour, the sweeping beauty of the surroundings sunk in. The first day was overcast and the limestone islets rose out of the mist like a Tolkenesque dreamscape. As we floated along, our guide, Mr.Si, pointed out white birds nesting in trees on some of the larger karsts, and rare foliage blooming on another. Every hour or so he’d rally our attention and say something like “look, over there – it is the woman waiting for her fisherman husband,” and explain a legend accompanying an oddly shaped karst. Mr. Si gestured excitedly to the curve resembling a woman’s hips, the dip of her sad smile. For the most part they just looked like big rocks to me, but I appreciated his enthusiasm.

On day two we got out the kayaks to search for bat caves.The recent storms had churned the seafloor causing garbage and debris to float to the surface. It was an odd balance; kayaking silently through the grandeur of these ancient rock mountains, the sound of birds, broken only by the splash of an oar into water, and then … a Bic lighter floats by.

The largest of the 3 caves we visited opened up into a water valley surrounded by towering karsts. We kayaked close enough to inspect the flowers growing along the rocks, and see monkeys climbing along thick hanging vines. It was remarkable feeling, a true appreciation of what mother-nature had created.

In the afternoon we swam off the boat, practicing swan dives, cherry bombs, and jack knives. I grabbed a circular lifesaver and chucked it in the water to swim in. Wedged in the middle of the floatie, like the pimento in olive, I took a good look at my surroundings. I was swallowed by the sea; miniaturized by giant stone peaks; caught in a sepia snapshot for the old memory book.

On day three, we made our way back to the harbour, watching the karsts dwindle and tour boats multiply. I spent just two nights on the Bay but I felt relaxed and renewed, like I’d been on a four week spa hiatus. In that small slice of time I managed to finish a book, drink four bottles of white wine, get a very cautious tan, take an average of 3 naps a day and still made time to eat, drink, swim, gawk at karsts, kayaks and generally had the time of my life.

Merrit Gurley is a freelance writer based in Bangkok, Thailand