Halong bay is the jewel in Vietnam’s tourism crown, a stunning geological formation that captivates even the most travel weary and jaded of visitors. Normally, everyone takes a cruise around the bay. You can choose one or two night trips and enjoy the mesmerising scenery and discover wonderful coves and islets. Or simply enjoy the views from the top deck on board your vessel.
As a repeat-visitor I wouldn’t say that I’m tired of Halong, but I was certainly most eager to discover another side to the UNESCO protected World Heritage Site when a friend told me about Luxury Travel Company’s helicopter tour. This would be an opportunity to fly over the bay and enjoy a bird’s eye view of the limestone karst islets, which according to legend are the shards of diamonds and Jade, which were spat out by a family of dragons sent down from heaven to help protect the land from foreign invaders. I am so excited at the prospect of climbing into a helicopter, I can hardly sleep the night before. But the closer the morning comes, the more and more I start to get nervous. Maybe, I am scared of heights? Having never scaled any cliff faces, or jumped out of an airplane with a parachute, how would I know?
I start to suffer pangs of vertigo before I even arrive at Gia Lam Airport, 5km from downtown Hanoi, where I am to meet my tour guide and the helicopter crew.
The flight departs at 8.30am. Still slightly anxious, I reassure myself that by flying to Halong Bay at least I’m avoiding the long, rather dangerous road from Hanoi to Haiphong. Halong city is normally a three-hour plus drive. Now we are expecting to arrive in 45 minutes.
Our guide informs us that the Russian MI-17 helicopter seats 24 people and reaches an altitude of 300m. We are also in luck. The sky is clear and blue, a perfect day for flying. We set off and everyone is understandably glued to the windows. Below we see vast, beautiful rice fields. The Red River looks like a long snake winding its way through a terracotta garden. Tran Van Huong , the captain, informs us that as a helicopter flies slower and lower than a jet, there is less chance people will feel sick while taking off or landing. The helicopter is quite large and comfortable. Although, it is a military chopper so there is no air-conditioning, just fans.
We are told we can visit the cockpit and talk with the four-member crew or, rather, shout at the crew with the rumbling engines it is hard to make yourself heard!
THE WHOLE PACKAGE
Northern Serviced Flight Company, who operate the helicopter, also offer trips to Sapa in Lao Cai province and Dien Bien Phu, but tourists currently seem to prefer Halong Bay. The whole tour with Luxury Travel includes a cruise on a junk as well as a helicopter tour over the bay, plus transfer from Hanoi and back by chopper. Halong Bay is certainly spectacular from the helicopter – it’s as perfect as a painting: the white sandy coves, the thick green forest, the rugged mountains and the jagged islets jutting out of the emerald waters.
Before the chopper lands at a heliport built on General Giap Hill I snap as many pictures as I can. Who knows when I will be 200m above Halong Bay again?
The chopper lands smoothly and we are back down on earth. Everyone is buzzing after the trip and I almost feel sad it’s over. From the heliport we are driven Bai Chay harbor, where boats and junks have gathered to meet the hundreds of tourists who are arriving from Hanoi. I can’t help swagger a little smugly past the tired looking tourist clambering out of the buses and mini-vans, thinking, I came by helicopter and I feel great! Coming by chopper I got to sleep-in longer and had plenty of room on board.
For once, I am actually refreshed and energized as we set off to explore the caves and beaches around Halong. Later on we grab kayaks and paddle around, visiting floating aquaculture farms or beaches. On previous trips I have often slumped in a chair, too tired and stiff to do anything else, but today I am up for everything. We enjoy a lavish seafood lunch on board and everyone is still in high spirits, reflecting on the amazing trip. It’s a little clichéd to say “this was unforgettable” but that’s how we felt!
After lunch the junk returns to port before we climb on board the helicopter and set off for the capital again where we arrive at 2.30pm. It’s hard to believe we still have an afternoon ahead of us.