The outline of the island we had moored by for the night was barely visible when I wake up this morning. I get out of bed, swallow a cup of Vietnamese cà phê, and join the guide to the kayaks that are already waiting for us by the side of the junk.
The air is still and the water like glass as we glide towards one of the islands nearby. There are hundreds of islands in the bay, huge columns of limestone rising fifty meters or more above water, topped by a thick jungle. As the sun rises lazily over the morning haze, birds provide a pleasant musical backdrop. With a few careful paddle maneuvers, we get to the side of an almost vertical cliff covered by vegetation that clings improbably to it. Up close, the size and beauty of these karst formations become more apparent. Looking back towards the horizon, the islands extend, seemingly infinitely, in progressively fading layers.
We turn a corner, and make landfall at our destination, the Soi Sim beach. Our Viet Tai Chi instructor is already waiting for us, dressed in a white silk uniform. After showing us some warm ups, we try to follow along as he demonstrate a form. I struggle to keep my balance on the soft sand that keeps crumbling each time I change my posture.
After this invigorating exercise, I follow some steps, then a dirt trail that climbs to the top of the hill. From there, a majestic panoramic view of the bay awaits.
Once back down, our guide encourages us to take a plunge in the bay. I dip my toes but the water is too cold for my taste. Unfortunately, the water is also littered with plastic bags, bottles, sandals, blocks of styrofoam and other debris. Using a big net, the crew tries to clean up a section of the beach for us, but it’s not very appealing.
Halong Bay is deservedly a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a magical place that invites reverie and contemplation. However, the level of blatant pollution that mars it is truly saddening and spoils what was an otherwise wonderful experience