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.


A new sea­plane ser­vice pro­vides a bird’s-eye view of Viet­nam’s Ha­long 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 1,200kilo­me­ter 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-squarek­ilo­me­ter 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.

Karst Away Right, from top: Hai Au Avi­a­tion’s Cessna float­plane taxi­ing for take­off; sun­set over a clus­ter of the bay’s karst is­lands. Op­po­site: Ad­mir­ing the pass­ing scenery from the sun­deck of the Jas­mine.

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.

Pho­to­graphs by Mark Eveleigh

Up in the Air Look­ing down on Ha­long Bay from the seat of a Cessna sea­plane.

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