Emerging from the activity and din of Hanoi and driving through the lush green rice-fields and villages of rural Vietnam, we head east to where the sparkling South China Sea awaits. Our destination, Halong Bay, is a place I've been yearning to visit.
The journey from Hanoi takes around three hours and passes through stunning countryside. As I gaze out of the window, it seems I am passing through a postcard image of Vietnam... I can see what seems like hundreds of farmers wearing the traditional conical hats – nón lá – so emblematic of Vietnam and its people. A smattering of rain is in the air, but not enough to dampen my spirits or my anticipation of what lies ahead.
On arrival in Hon Gai, the gateway to Halong Bay, we are greeted by sudden bright sunshine and the crew of the Vietnamese junk ship Ginger, a beautiful wooden vessel with billowing orange sails, which will be our home for the next 24 hours. The bay being the largest draw of the area, many visitors opt to do as I have done, taking an overnight cruise rather than using the land as a base, and it's easy to see why.
Many of the ships travelling through the bay are junks, Chinese-designed vessels that, regardless of their general shape, all feature fully-battened sails stretching up from the deck like sweeping ridges on a seafaring dragon.
A small launch boat takes our group from the pier to the junk; once on board, I settle into a comfortable armchair and await a short briefing from the crew, while my luggage is despatched to my cabin. After a cooling welcome cocktail and a quick run-through of the plans for the day, we set off into the bay.
The Ginger is small but perfectly formed, with a combination of deluxe and superior cabins split over the lower and middle decks, and a lovely restaurant and bar area lead outside and up onto the open upper deck. This is where I find most of my fellow passengers – relaxing on loungers, enjoying a glass of wine, and watching the magnificent limestone cliffs rear up in the distance from the sparkling green sea. The story goes that a heavenly dragon once sprayed pearl into the sea, which landed and became the iconic rock pillars we know today. Seeng their rounded forms shine in the sunlight, I find it easy to believe there is a hint of magic here.
As we glide through the water, we enjoy a sumptuous buffet of freshly-caught local seafood – oysters, prawns, and monkfish are all worth a try – before dropping anchor. We venture off the junk and onto the launch for a trip to one of the area's many floating villages, where we learn about the history of the bay and have a chance to watch local fishermen plying their trade.
The rest of the afternoon is spent exploring one of the bay's many islands, and taking a light trek to the top of one of the limestone peaks. The view from up here is intoxicating, and vastly different from the water-level scenery we have enjoyed up to now. The rocky outcroppings throughout the water stretch almost to the horizon, and the vibrant tones of emerald foliage, deep azure sea, and saffron junk sails makes for an indelible panorama in the memory.
After a quick swim in the clear waters of the South China Sea, we return to the junk and enjoy early evening cocktails while watching the sun set, which transforms the surrounding cliffs and ocean to a shimmering ochre. Then we head inside for dinner, drinks and a chance to reflect on a truly memorable day.
The following morning I rise early, eager to make the most of my last few hours on the junk and also to take part in the complimentary tai chi class put on by the ship's crew. As the sun rises we set sail, heading slowly back to the mainland and passing through some of Halong's most spectacular scenery, while enjoying a superb buffet brunch.
As we approach Hon Gai, there's just time to have a final relaxing stroll on the top deck before we pull into port. A final farewell to my fellow passengers and the wonderful crew of the Ginger, and I'm back on the road seeking another Vietnamese adventure.