Ha Long Bay is the jewel in Vietnam’s tourism crown, a stunning geological formation that captivates even the most travel weary and jaded of visitors.
Most people usually take a cruise around the bay. You can choose one or two night trips to enjoy the mesmerising scenery and discover wonderful coves and islets or simply enjoy the views from the top deck of your boat.
As a repeat visitor I wouldn’t say I’m tired of Ha Long, but I was certainly eager to discover another side of the UNESCO World Heritage Site when a friend told me about the Minmax Travel’s helicopter tour.
This would be a great 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 diamond and jade, that were spat out by a family of dragons sent from heaven to help protect Vietnam from foreign invaders.
I was so excited at the prospect of climbing into a helicopter, I could hardly sleep the night before. But as the morning drew closer I started to get increasingly nervous. What if, I am scared of heights? Having never scaled any cliff faces, or jumped out of an airplane, how would I know?
I begin to suffer vertigo even before I 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 I’m at least avoiding the long, rather dangerous road from Hanoi to Hai Phong. Ha Long is normally more than a three-hour drive but via helicopter we expect to arrive in 45 minutes.
Our guide informs us that the Russian MI-17 helicopter seats 24 people and will reach 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 immediately glued to the windows and we see vast, beautiful rice fields pass below us.
The Red River looks like a long snake winding its way through a terracotta garden. Tran Van Huong, the captain, informs us that because a helicopter flies slower and lower than a jet, there is less chance that people will feel sick while taking off or landing. The helicopter is quite large and comfortable, but being a military chopper, 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 –it is hard to make yourself heard above the throbbing engines!
The whole package
The 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 Ha Long 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.
Ha Long 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 karsts jutting out of the emerald water.
I snap as many pictures as I can before the chopper lands at a heliport on General Giap Hill (named after General Vo Nguyen Giap as you might guess) Who knows when I will be 200m above Ha Long 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.
We are driven from the heliport to Bai Chay harbour, where boats and junks have gathered to meet the hundreds of tourists arriving from Hanoi. I can’t help but swagger a little smugly past the tired looking tourists 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 energised as we set off to explore the caves and beaches around Ha Long. Later on we grab kayaks and paddle around, visiting floating aquaculture farms and beaches. On previous trips I was 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 again climb on board the helicopter and set off for the capital where we arrive at 2.30pm. It’s hard to believe we still have the whole afternoon ahead of us!