The dawn light shining on to the emerald- green water of Halong Bay, illuminates the towering limestone rocks dotted around and takes my breath away.
Which is not particularly helpful when you’re trying to copy the flowing, stretching movements of a t’ai chi master during a 6am class on the sundeck of our boat. A 30-minute routine was the perfect way to start the day, before exploring some of the islands and caves of the bay in Vietnam, named one of the New Seven Natural Wonders of the World in 2012.
A staggering 1,969 islands are scattered throughout the 1,000 sq miles of water in the bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994.
Local legend states this magnificent landscape was created by a dragon crashing down from the mountains, knocking rocks into the sea below. After spending a night in a comfortable cabin on the Indochina Sails cruise ship, which brought us into the heart of the bay and dropped anchor, a smaller wooden junk took us to Luon Cave.
This has become a natural oasis since the cave was flooded and can only be reached through a narrow entrance on small bamboo vessels called sampans, rowed by oarsman from fishing villages bordering the protected areas of the bay.
Once inside monkeys can be seen sitting on branches or hanging from rock faces, while sea eagles soar over the crystal-clear water looking for fish. Another vast complex of limestone rock formations, Surprise Cave, can be explored on foot, with some of its stalactites and stalagmites shaped like animals or people.
There are stunning vistas everywhere but some of the
best are from the entrance to this natural grotto. I had arrived in Vietnam a few days earlier on a TUI multicentre holiday, relaxing at the Novotel Hotel on the island Phú Quôc in the Gulf of Thailand to get over the 12-hour flight.
The garden bungalows each have private plunge pools and good access to the main swimming pool and Truong Beach. From there a two-hour flight brought us to capital city Hanoi, which has been dubbed the “Paris of the East” for its French colonial buildings with tree-lined boulevards and dozens of lakes.
It’s also home to the mausoleum of the late revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh, as well as his various residences, in the Old Quarter of the city.
The narrow streets of this quarter are packed with traders and worth exploring on a cycle tour. Although its communist past is evident at every turn, this contrasts with the skyscrapers shooting up to meet the city’s rapid economic and population growth.
Many of Vietnam’s most famous food dishes originate from Hanoi, including pho, rice noodle soup eaten for breakfast, normally with beef or chicken, and bánh cuôn, a rice noodle roll filled with ground pork, mushrooms and shallots.
After a three-hour drive to spend a couple of days on the boat touring Halong Bay, we completed our trip by returning to Phú Quôcfor a day of sunbathing topped by a feast at
the Novotel’s seafood restaurant. It’s easy to see why travel experts have named Vietnam one of this year’s holiday hotspots. With direct flights to Phú Quôc from London Gatwick, it’s easy to experience the culture of its capital and the natural beauty of Halong Bay before relaxing on the beach.