I got what I wanted, and now I was nervous. The six other kayaks we had started out with were now out of sight. My 50-year-old local guide, Khai, steered us through a tight canyon of limestone towers, jutting like a dragon’s spine out of an emerald sea. “Where did the others go?” I asked, not used to being this alone (or in a kayak). “Psst!” he shot back, as if to say: “Who cares?”
Any visitor to northern Vietnam is inundated with images and offers of boat tours to Halong Bay, Vietnam’s most-popular (and commercialised) natural attraction. But once visitors get on one of the junks (traditional Chinese boats) racing across the bay, they often find as much intimacy with their surroundings as on a Spanish beach in August.
I tried it another way, ferrying to the bay’s biggest island, Cat Ba, where I met a local who spoke of ‘secret spots’. We bummed a ride on a tour boat to Lan Ha Bay, Halong’s quieter twin sister, then broke off their path. Way off.
But confidence in a kayak, I learned, grows with each paddle splash. So does excitement. After an hour passing jagged rock formations and vistas of empty water, we stopped at a lone floating home, where a fishing family clicked off a battery-powered TV and welcomed us with honey wine.
Afterwards, we paddled to a small stone beach nearby. Khai gestured towards a path. “Hidden lake – I’m the only one who knows about it.” Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. But it certainly felt that way to me.
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