Discover Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay

 Rob Ball / Getty Images

In 2005, freelancer Dan Koeppel, along with actor Steve Zahn and his two companions, visited Vietnam's Ha Long Bay. The area is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and in 2012 was named one New Seven Wonders of Nature by the New7Wonders Foundation.

We’d been pushing through dense forest for three hours, climbing up and down boulder-strewn limestone peaks. Four summits and several miles of tropical jungle stood between us and the quiet bay on the far side of Cat Ba island, off the coast of northern Vietnam. It was well past noon, and the heat — nearing 100 degrees — had lulled us into a trudging torpor. The forest seemed strangely empty, as if the giant squirrels, flycatchers twittering through the canopy, and kaleidoscopic swarms of butterflies we’d seen earlier had taken the afternoon off.

“Stop!” said Pham Tien Hung, our guide, quickly stretching his arm across the narrow path. We looked down at the trail and spied a small snake with black and gold scales. It looked like the harmless garden-variety snakes I’d seen in my backyard in L.A. But here in the jungles of Southeast Asia things are never quite as they seem. Hung told us that the reptile sunning itself on the trail was none other than a Malayan pit viper, whose venom digests human flesh. I asked him if there were many such snakes in the area. “Oh, yes,” he smiled. “We’ve already passed several!”

We had trekked four miles, and we weren’t even halfway across Cat Ba. The trail ahead was getting fainter and steeper; in fact, it was hardly a trail at all, angling upward until it was just a vast chute of fallen rocks. I don’t remember which of the five of us actually said it, but it was a thought we all shared: “What time does it get dark?”

A few mornings before, we’d departed Hanoi, driven three hours to the coast, boarded a flat-bottomed junk boat, and sailed out into Ha Long Bay. Our group included actor Steve Zahn and a pair of his buddies: his assistant Nate Lewis and Mike Burt, a financial analyst. We were heading into one of the world’s most astounding geologic spectacles: More than 2,000 towering limestone formations — or karst islands — dot these waters. Recent years have seen an increase of hired junks crowding guided routes along the archipelago, but we wanted to spend our time instead looking for less-visited spots: sea kayaking deep into the caves that honeycomb the islands, pulling up on deserted beaches, trekking through thick brush, and gradually working our way toward Cat Ba. One of Ha Long’s outermost islands — half of it a national park with some of the most vertical, rugged terrain in Vietnam — Cat Ba is the bay’s stiffest challenge. Few in their right mind walk across it. But that was precisely our plan.

Steve and Nate had just come off two months of filming in Thailand, and Steve wanted to revert to “regular guy” mode, where no one would stop him and say, “Wait! Aren’t you that guy in…?” (Steve is one of Hollywood’s great hard-to-place actors. And I’d just spent two weeks dodging traffic in Beijing. We were sleep-deprived but also play-deprived. All of us were well-versed in Vietnam War epics, and Steve had a cousin who’d been pretty scarred by his experience in the war. But we were eager to know the country for ourselves. Our party was certainly well-equipped: We had our guide and the junk, which was stocked with fishing tackle and a quartet of kayaks, along with a full kitchen, a cook, and 200 cans of beer.

An hour out of the harbor, Ha Long Bay felt more like a traffic jam than an exotic seafaring adventure. We were at the mercy of the ship captain and guide, who neither grasped what "off the beaten path" meant, nor knew how to take us there. We were determined to avoid the cabana-strewn beaches, caves with laser light shows, and “mountains” with souvenir stands at the summit. But at this rate, it appeared we might have to stage a mutiny to do it.

Our first destination was a place Hung described as “the Surprise Cave.” As we moved into quieter waters, away from an armada of outbound junks, we loaded up the kayaks with gear. Steve’s kit included a packet of chewing tobacco. I commented, as he tore open the pouch and stuffed a plug into his mouth, that this didn’t exactly strike me as a Hollywood habit.

“You’re wrong,” he said, pointing to his improvised spittoon. It was an Evian bottle.

I grabbed a couple of energy bars and climbed into a kayak. We pointed ourselves toward a double-peaked formation about a half mile away and started paddling. As we got closer, we could see a dock and a set of narrow wooden stairs leading up to a doorway-size opening cut into the limestone wall. We disembarked and scampered on up. Crouching into the interior of the opening, we passed into a supermarket-size cavern. We could hear water trickling somewhere deep in the darkness. It was almost pitch black — until an attendant threw a switch, illuminating the cave with thousands of red, blue, and green flood lights. A “surprise,” to be sure. But hardly the kind of discovery we were seeking.

The next morning, we hit the water in our kayaks, quickly distancing ourselves from the pod of boats that had moored near us for the night. We paddled by fenced-in oyster farms and wound our way toward another karst island, where we spotted a low sliver of a passageway to its interior. We ducked and pulled ourselves along, moving toward the sunlit opening at the far end. It was a tight squeeze, and we had to nearly flatten ourselves to avoid the razor-sharp ridges of the limestone overhang.

We emerged into an expansive body of water hemmed in by forested ramparts. On the opposite shore, another passage led to a second lake, and then a third. Only one other person was on the water with us: a woman dressed in the region’s traditional pajamalike work clothes scraping oysters and barnacles off the limestone at the waterline. We lay back on our kayaks and floated; soon, we’d drifted apart. I could barely see Steve on the other shore. Staring up at the jagged walls, we felt like we were in a huge crater, with clouds sweeping above. The solitude and sunlight were making us all feel good, like we’d finally escaped the bay’s gaudy attractions and found something nearly secret. I knew Steve felt the same way because I could hear him singing the chorus from Bye Bye Birdie. (Quite well, too. Before he was a tough-guy sidekick, he logged a string of almost-memorable performances Off Broadway.)

Over the next two days, we made a concerted and largely successful effort to steer clear of commercial Ha Long. Our only exception to the “no people” rule was to accept a dinner invitation from some folks who actually live on the water in the bay’s floating villages. Tourists are a rare sight in these waterborne towns. As we sat on a tablecloth spread on the slightly bobbing floor, feasting on tuna with spicy nuoc cham sauce (Vietnam’s kick-ass answer to ketchup), we could feel the hundreds of eyes staring at us from beyond the lantern light. “They think you must be weird for coming here,” Hung confided.

After dinner, our junk’s engines rumbled to a start. We’d navigate to Cat Ba overnight, giving us an early start for the next morning’s trek. As we moved between the islands, which loomed like living figures in the moonlight, Steve told us about a scene in his movie, Bandidas, in which he’s captured by a gun-toting Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz. The lady outlaws capture Steve, tie him up, then take turns making out with him. Usually actors tell you that such romantic scenes aren’t as much fun as they seem, what with the hot lights and all the crew members leering. Still, we had to ask. “You can’t say it was anything but work,” Steve said. Then he grinned: “But I can say it took three days to film.”

Cat Ba isn't like its sister islands. It’s so big that, instead of one or two pinnacles at its center, it has scores of them jutting up from its interior like stubby fingers. Our plan was to hike eight miles across the island, west to east, at its broadest point, up and over four summits, past the village of Viet Hai, to Lan Ha Bay; the junk would circle around the island and wait for us there.

At first the trail was easy to find. But within an hour it narrowed and dipped into the forest. With the temperature already inching toward triple digits, the shade felt good. Soon we were clambering up again through strangler figs and giant ferns across crumbly switchbacks. Then even those gave way to loose rungs of rock. Nate and Mike were simply in awe, letting out an occasional low whistle when we’d burst through the canopy into an open meadow or find a tiny pool filled with button-size frogs. Steve, meanwhile, seemed lost in thought. Later, he’d tell me he was imagining how alien and terrifying such jungles must have once seemed to American GIs like his cousin.

The scramble up the final and tallest peak was the hardest. The climb required a kind of exhausting ballet in which we tried to maintain our footing while doing as little as possible to disturb the scree. The summit itself was like a ladder of wobbly boulders that we clung to. When we finally reached the top, we took a few moments to survey what we’d accomplished. Behind us, to the north and east, we could see where we had started four days earlier far in the island- and junk-scattered distance. And spread before us to the south, just the vast and empty waters of the Gulf of Tonkin and the South China Sea beyond. Below, on Cat Ba itself, we could see nothing but treetops. No settlements, no roads, no boats along the shoreline, no trail.

“This,” Steve said, “is it.” We all knew what he meant.

The sun was setting. It was our last day and we were bruised and bone-tired, and from our junk we could see a stretch of white sand. Hung told us that one last “surprise” awaited us there. Eager but skeptical, we dived en masse off the bow and swam to shore.

The revelation was that the beach was crowded. With monkeys. Steve had an orange, so he ripped off a chunk and tossed it toward one of the babies. The tiny primate picked up the piece of fruit and stared back, as if about to ask, “Wait! Aren’t you that guy…?” Steve threw a second piece. This time the monkey in charge lunged at Steve.

“Retreat!” he yelped, though all of us were already flailing backward into the water.

Our dalliance in amateur primatology lasted about 20 minutes; we’d try to step on shore, and the monkeys would drive us off. Eventually, we waded halfway around the island. We were alone again, and for the remaining minutes of daylight we lay on the sand and stared into the bay, drinking the beer Hung delivered by kayak. (Our final count was 99 cans for the trip.) It was the right place to be — on a desolate beach, on a remote bay, somewhere between hard and easy, somewhere between lost and found.