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I take a deep breath and plunge into the icy cold emerald waters as the sun dips below the horizon. The dim moonlight defines the jagged, almost prehistoric silhouettes of the surrounding limestone cliffs. My imagination runs wild – here I am, swimming in a part of the world that dates back at least 250 million years, according to archaeologists. The sea depth is unknown and if there is any truth to legends, there might be dragons and other mythical creatures lurking in the deep. I also remember reading somewhere that there are mines in the area – instruments of death placed by the Americans during the Vietnam War. After a few minutes of floating in the dark, I scramble back onto my boat.
I am in Halong Bay, which literally means Bay of the Descending Dragon in Vietnamese. Located northeast of Hanoi, the Bay is famous for its surrealistic seascape of thousands of limestone islets jutting out of the sea. This geographic work of art, recognised as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) World Heritage Site, has fascinated visitors from around the world for ages: part of the chase scene in the James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies was filmed here.
There are 1,969 islands of various shapes and sizes scattered around Halong Bay. Many of these have acquired names based on their shapes which resemble various animals.
The bigger islands feature forests, caves and grottoes with imaginative names such as Virgin Grotto (Hang Trinh Nu) or Heavenly Palace Grotto (Thien Cung). Some tourists get here from Hanoi early in the morning, spend a mere afternoon cruising around the Bay, and then hurry back. Given their haste, they are naturally left wondering what all the excitement about Halong is about. To fully soak in this destination, you have to stay at least a night or two. You will find much to do besides cruising the vicinity and witnessing the limestone islets, which are pretty impressive. The smaller boats will take you to the floating villages where fishermen hawk live seafood that you can purchase and have cooked on the spot. Most of the boats will stop to let you to explore the caves and grottoes. The larger boats feature kayaks that you can take to one of the secluded beaches or lagoons for a picnic or a quick dip. The day comes to a climax during sunset, when the boats drop anchor and switch off their engines . This is also when the fading sunlight bathes the calm waves in a golden glow, and the calls of the seabirds in the distance put you at peace with nature. The evening brings activities as stargazing or night fishing. >> Local Attractions Halong “City” in Quang Ninh Province is, in reality, a small town divided into two by a sea-lane. Ferries used to bring people, cars and motorbikes across, but they stopped operations recently when a new bridge was completed. Visitors coming from Hanoi will be dropped off on the west end of the town, also called Bai Chay. The hotels, boat terminals and tourist facilities are concentrated along a stretch of road facing the beach in this part of town. On the east end is the busyside where the locals work and live.
There is not much to do in town, but if you fancy spending a few days here, you can visit the local Halong Market, located on the eastern end of the town, early in the morning. You can also check out Bai Tho Mountain, otherwise known as “Poem Mountain”. Climb to the summit at 106m and be rewarded with a panoramic view of the Bay. Long Tien Pagoda, the largest in the vicinity, is also worth checking out. Inside the pagoda is a small but impressive collection of Buddha statues and religious figurines. It is usually quieter around town in the evenings, but you can visit Bai Chay Night Market – which is akin to a pasar malam – or drop in for sustenance at one of the pubs and restaurants located in the larger hotels like the Saigon Halong.
You might also want to get a massage; prices here are much cheaper than in Hanoi (an hour-long session typically costs US$10 or about S$13). Most of the locals are honest and hardworking even though they do not earn a lot by Western standards. I met Thuong, a gutsy 20-year-old girl who makes a living ferrying tourists on her rented trishaw or cyclo (pronounced sick-lo). Thuong earns up to US$40 in a good month, which partly helps fund her Chinese lessons. “I intend to study Korean as well,” she tells me in fluent Mandarin. “Then I can be a tour guide for both Chinese and Korean tourists.” A 2km ride on her cyclo from my hotel to downtown Bai Chay only cost US$1.
You would get terribly bored if you stayed in the city for more than three days; however, the sleepy town has started to realize the potential of tourism. Big hotel chains such as Sheraton are investing in new resorts here; other tourism-related projects are also starting to emerge. Quang Ninh Province is adjacent to China’s Guangxi province up north, so Chinese tourists visit by the bus loads. Halong is also popular among Korean travellers.
>> Nearby Attractions Tuan Chau Island, located south-west of Halong Bay, can be reached overland or by ferry. Previously inhabited only by local fishermen, it is fast becoming a modern tourist destination with resort and theme park projects in development. Farther down south is Cat Ba Island, famous for its national park rich in wildlife and exotic plant species, and long stretches of white sandy beaches. Do Son, located near the maritime port of Haiphong, is known for its shores and the annual Do Son Buffalo Fight Festival.
If you head north-west from Halong, you will reach the border town of Mong Cai. From here you can hop across to mainland China and connect with cities like Nanning or Guangzhou.
>> Where To Eat There are several tourist standard seafood restaurants located along the Bai Chay strip. Several smaller restaurants centre around the post office area, but they are nothing to shout about – there is better seafood in Ho Chi Minh City.
>> Where To Stay Most visitors to Halong opt to stay on one of the many boats that cruise the Bay.
If you’re a landlubber, there are many hotels along the Bai Chay strip that range from four-star resorts to US$10-a-night budget hotels. These budget hotels are located in the vicinity of the central post office, while the larger hotels are located along a 2km stretch facing the beach. Some of the more established hotels along this stretch include: the Halong Plaza Hotel (Tel: +84 033 845 810, www.halongplaza.com), Heritage Halong Hotel (Tel: +84 033 845 810) and Saigon Halong Hotel (Tel: +84 033 845 845, www.saigonhalonghotel.com). Four Points by Sheraton Halong Bay (Tel: +84 033 848 146,www.starwoodhotels.com) is slated to open in September 2008. If you fancy a stay at a five-star resort with a view of the Bay, try Tuan Chau Resort (Tel: +84 033 842 999, www.tuanchauresort.com.vn) on Tuan Chau Island.
There are more choices if you opt to stay onboard the boats. Top of the list in terms of luxury must surely be the Emeraude (Tel: +84-04 934 0888, www.emeraude-cruises.com), a replica of a colonial era paddle steamer. I had the privilege to stay in the suite located at the bow of the 36-cabin ship – the private viewing deck offered me an unobstructed panorama of where the vessel was headed. Cruising on the Emeraude is like going back in time to the days of the French colonial era – perfect for those who love nostalgia.
If you’re looking for a cruise aboard a more traditional vessel, try one of the Huong Hai Junks (Tel: +84-033 845 042, www.halongdiscovery.com). The company offers a fleet of wooden junks modelled after the 18th century craft used by Vietnamese royalty. The upper floor resembles an ancient Chinese palace complete with circular doors and pillars, and topped with billowing scarlet sails. If you relish the idea of sailing the seas in a replica of a traditional sailboat, try the Lagoon Explorer boats managed by Tropical Sails (Tel: +84-04 923 2559, www.tropical-sails.com). They feature amenities such as a fine dining restaurant, bar and lounge.
>> When To Go The waters around Halong Bay are usually calm, but it does get a bit chilly at night so remember to bring along a sweater if you plan to spend the night onboard. The best time to visit is between October and April, when there is very little rainfall. If you like to get your feet wet, you may want to avoid the winter months from November to February when the waters are chilly. The monsoon season is around May to September, and the weather can get so bad that the whole area may be closed to tourists.
>> Getting There Halong sits 165km northeast of Hanoi. Local minibuses depart from the capital a few times a day and tourist coaches usually depart early in the morning (around 8am). The road trip takes less than three hours. It used to be a bumpy ride a few years ago, but a new highway has helped make the journey more comfortable. If you’re pressed for time, you could leave Hanoi around 8am, hop onto one of the local boats at noon for a four-hour cruise, and be back in Hanoi in time for dinner. You can head to the main ferry terminal at Bai Chay on your own to get a boat tour, or make bookings through your hotel in Hanoi. The hotel earns a commission for selling tour tickets, but the do not offer any assistance beyond that. I have heard horror stories of tourists being asked to pay extra for cooking meals on board or for extended cruising time the minute they board one of the local vessels. So book your trip with an established Hanoi tour operator, or directly with the boat operators mentioned above, and get ready for a priceless peek into a slice of as-yet-unspoilt Vietnamese heritage.