Local residents call it “Ha Long Bay on land;” visitors refer to it as “the waveless bay.”
Whatever the name, the Van Long Lagoon offers the perfect northern getaway for those suffering from urban fatigue.
The lagoon makes up more than 3,500 hectares of Ninh Binh Province, not far from Hanoi.
Our tour around the northern delta region’s largest aquatic nature reserve began at a bamboo pier.
In a shallow bamboo boat, we set off lazily rowing to the center lagoon. The water reflected the surrounding mountains and the open sky, as clearly as a mirror.
Willow trees and rush climbed high along the waterline and cast shadows on tangled of cypress vine and coontail.
Thousands of plants and animals live around the lagoon including the giant water bug (known locally as toe-biters), which are on Vietnam Red List. The douc langur, which is facing extinction, also lives here.
As our boat glided quietly into the Hang Bong (Shadow Cave), some primordial jitters began to set in. The cave, which goes on for more than 100 meters, is comprised of thousand year old stalactites, which hang down into the water like ancient fangs.
Clapping sets off a bizarre echo that sounds like the twang of some ancient string instrument.
Only half of the cave is above water; the other half lies below, waiting to be explored.
After thousands of years, winds and waves have carved many caves and caverns along the edge of the lagoon. As the sun began to set behind the sharp mountain pass, the bay took on the pinks and purples of the sky-a feast for the eye.
The final destination on the lagoon is the Kem Tram Bay. Two steep mountain ranges flank the open water here like two darts connecting heaven and earth.
A boat tour costs VND45,000 (US$2.25) per person, including visits to Hang Bong, Hang Rua (Turtle Cave), Hang Ca (Fish Cave) and the surrounding mountains.
Around 300 bamboo boats are docked around in the lagoon; each can accommodate around three people a time.
Van Long Lagoon is around 80 kilometers, or two hours by bus from Hanoi. Take National Highway 1A, pass Phu Ly and enter Ninh Binh. At Gian Khau T-junction, turn left to wards Nho Quan. The lagoon is around 8 kilometers further in Gia Van Commune, Gia Vien District.