A new seaplane service provides a bird’s-eye view of Vietnam’s most famous bay—and the perfect start to a cruise through its myriad myth-inspiring islands.
I’m no stranger to bumpy landings, but as I looked down onto the wind-chopped waters of Halong Bay, I’ll admit that I was getting nervous about my first descent in a seaplane.
We had taken off from the runway at Hanoi’s international airport 30 minutes earlier, just as the sun was starting to burn the early-morning mist off the rice fields. Banking away from the Vietnamese capital, the 12-passenger Cessna Caravan Amphibian was soon soaring over the great snaking zigzag of the Red River as it neared the end of its 1,200-
kilometer run from China’s Yunnan province, its waters tinted ruddy brown from the runoff of the countless paddies that have made Vietnam one of the world’s largest exporters of rice.
Before long we caught sight of the first limestone spires of Halong Bay’s mythic islands, looking like the towers of some prehistoric cityscape rearing above the shimmering coastal flatlands. It’s not every day you get an aerial view of what might well be the most spectacular bay in the world—Hai Au Aviation, Vietnam’s first commercial seaplane service, only began operating out of Hanoi last September after attaining special permission to operate scenic flights over Halong. For travelers with limited time and a sense of adventure, it’s an ideal way to see this 1,500-square-kilometer World Heritage Site, if only to skip the seven-hour car journey from Hanoi.
Out over the jade-green water, the Cessna banked hard above the modest summit of Ti Top Island. Of all the outcroppings in Halong Bay, this is the only that takes its name from a person: Ho Chi Minh himself rechristened it in 1962 while visiting the island with his friend Gherman Stepanovich Titov, the Soviet cosmonaut who was the first person to spend an entire day in space. As the pilot tilted the wings in a playful victory salute I found myself looking directly down on a rocky pinnacle that seemed to be just a hundred meters below us.
Most of the islands rise in sheer cliffs, and it was hard to imagine that they had ever seen human footprints. I wondered if anything at all could have evolved in such spectacular isolation since this flooded mountain chain first emerged from the sea 250 million years ago. But Halong teems with biodiversity: hundreds of fish species have been recorded here, and researchers have identified 14 endemic plant species and no less than five dozen species of endemic animals.
Halong Bay is part of a great limestone ecosystem wedged between the tectonic bookends of Bai Tu Long Bay to the northeast and the Cat Ba Archipelago to the southwest. Its 1,900-plus islands and islets punctuate the sea in great sweeping ranges, cragged and scaled with rock, looking exactly like the backs of the dragons that a Vietnamese legend holds them to be.
Here and there in sheltered bays, we could see the odd fishing boat or a lonely houseboat, tethered to its floating fish corrals. Swooping over one of the main channels we suddenly had an aerial view of half a dozen gleaming white tourist junks, heading back to port to pick up a new batch of passengers. I wondered if the boat we would be sailing on was among them.
The water landing I’d been fretting about was, in fact, smooth and uneventful, though it must have traumatized the dozen or so small silvery fish that suddenly found themselves hitching a ride on the seaplane’s floats. After depositing us at its wharf on Tuan Chau Island, the Cessna taxied off to refuel for its return flight, giving us time to enjoy a couple glasses of aromatic Vietnamese coffee before our mid-morning transfer to the Jasmine, one of three junk-rigged boats owned by boutique cruise operator Heritage Line. With 23 roomy, wood-paneled cabins and an elegant dining room and lounge area, the 55-meter Jasmine is among the bay’s most luxurious vessels, though the upper deck tends to be where passengers spend all their time. And with good reason: no matter how attractive the boat may be, it’s the spellbinding labyrinth of karst formations that people come here to see. With your bare feet planted on the warm timber deck of a slow boat in the Gulf of Tonkin, under the shade of a tawny-colored sail, it’s hard to imagine a better way to explore this otherworldly seascape.
But to truly experience the bay you need to get your feet wet—or better yet, your whole body. Over the next couple of days we swam in the balmy waters and paddled kayaks through limestone tunnels into lagoons where the only other creatures to be seen were golden-headed langurs, one of the world’s rarest primates. The monkeys are endemic to the bay’s largest island, Cat Ba, which we visited for a cycling excursion and a taste of hoanh bo, the fiery local rice wine. We also paddled around a floating fishing village and explored a nearby cave complex where the villagers claim their ancestors were born some 10,000 years ago—they call it the “honeymoon suite.”
I spent my last evening relaxing on the Jasmine’s sun deck, an icy gin and tonic in hand. It wasn’t nearly as thrilling as that first barnstorming view from the air, but with the wind cracking in the sails and Halong Bay’s surreal archipelago slipping slowly past, I had all the drama I needed.
A five-day Historic Hanoi and a Flight of Fancy tour with Backyard Travel costs from US$1,599 per person and includes two nights’ accommodation at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi and two nights aboard the Jasmine, as well as the seaplane flight from Hanoi to Halong Bay (backyardtravel.com; most meals included). For those looking to make their own arrangements, Hai Au Aviation flies daily between Hanoi and Halong Bay with the option of adding on a 15-minute scenic flight over the karst-strewn waters (seaplanes.vn; one-way tickets from US$258).
This article originally appeared in the February/March print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“High Times Over Halong”)