cruising + kayaking in Ha Long Bay

exploring Vietnam's stunning Ha Long Bay by water: cruising and kayaking

Ha Long Bay is one of those places you have to see to believe. limestone giants draped with green vegetation rise out of blue seas, so plentiful they look like layers of mountains on the horizon. junk boats and fishing skiffs and kayak tours float along together by day, while a flock of squid boats appears from nowhere to light up the night.

last summer, I spent 3 days and 2 nights cruising Ha Long Bay while traveling through Vietnam. to be honest -- I feel the need to preface this post with a disclaimer. I am not a cruise person. I like being in control of my itinerary, my activities, and my menu when I travel. having a list of pre-arranged and not exactly optional excursions rubbed me a bit wrong. but. booking a cruise is the most efficient way to see Ha Long [unless, I suppose, you've got the cash to charter your own boat. I don't.]

that's not to knock our cruise -- everyone at the Indochina Junk office and aboard the Dragon Legend were helpful and attentive. our "junk boat" was not in any way junky, and the staff was extremely patient when dealing with my numerous food allergies. I'm just... not a cruise person. however, I chose to ham it up and do all the activities and ended up enjoying myself well enough.

[ for more details about my trip, check out my Vietnam travel guide + 10 day itinerary ]

this was my first time on a cruise. it was all-inclusive [except for the alcohol] and everything was planned out ahead of time. all we had to do was float along and enjoy the ride. after our trek through Sapa -- well, that sounded like a nice relaxing few days [no matter my cruise prejudice.] I pictured lounging on the sun deck, reading my book in peace, with some kind of tropical concoction to keep me cool.

the weather had other ideas. the sky was grey and hazy. it was sweltering hot, without even an ocean breeze to bring relief. in part, that's why I have so few photos from our cruise. and what I do have is a mash of shots from my camera, my phone, and my friend's waterproof camera. because [despite the heat and the occasional tropical downpour] we still went on two kayak excursions, a hike to a cave, a tour of a floating village, and a beach barbecue.

I know these photos make our kayak tours look pretty incredible. and they were -- even the part where we went through a dark sea cave with so little headspace we had to do the limbo in our kayak.

but what you don't see are the currents of trash our guide had to navigate us around. the water in Ha Long Bay... was filthy. in part, because a huge storm had blown by a few days before our cruise and caused debris from elsewhere to drift in. [also causing the windless and sweltering weather.] but some of the garbage in the water was just the pollution that has accumulated over time.

it was heartbreaking to see a blight like that in such a beautiful place, and to know humanity's part in the destruction.

the waters around the floating village that we toured were a little cleaner. each boat was armed with a net to scoop of bits of trash as we sailed along. but the difference was more than nets -- our guide explained that the cruise company was supporting eco-friendly tourism by bringing us there. the money that paid for our tour would go to help these fishing villages build more sustainable homes [floating on plastic barrels rather than styrofoam blocks.] our cruise ship would collect the garbage from the village and bring it to the mainland to be disposed of, rather than letting it drift out to sea.

it may not be much in the grand scheme of things -- only a drop in the ocean of the earth's problems -- but it made me feel better to know that in a small way, we were helping.

Ha Long Bay was beautiful. perhaps I should just leave it at that.

but the weather, the pollution, and the fact that I got wretchedly ill after our cruise have definitely given me mixed emotions about my experience there. so I'm having trouble finding the right words to end this post.

I always try to be honest about my travels. there are too many people out there who shine up their words and sell you the pinterest-perfect "ultimate" experience. [and at times I'm sure I've been guilty of that as well.] but there's never any guarantee that your encounter with a place will be the match of anyone else's. I think that each of us connect to a destination in our own way. and while Ha Long Bay was a beautiful place, it just wasn't my place.

but maybe... it might be yours.


Istanbul // the Süleymaniye Mosque

step inside the Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey: a stunning masterpiece of the influential architect Sinan, overlooking the city's hills and blue waters of the Bosphorus.

one of the best parts of travel is experiencing something new. something out of your comfort zone, something unexpected, foreign and strange. as adults it can be hard to catch that sense of wonder that seems to abound as children. travel is a way we can reclaim that wonder.

my trip to Turkey last summer was the first time I had ever visited a mosque. it was the first time I ever heard the call to prayer [aside from in movies.] and the experience of standing on the terrace outside the Süleymaniye Mosque while the call rang out across the Golden Horn, echoing on the Bosphorous... well, that gave me goosebumps. it was a moment.

the Süleymaniye Mosque was possibly the most beautiful thing we saw in Istanbul.

[I wrote you a fantastic and heartfelt post about it. and then somehow between finishing my draft and the final proofread before publishing... my post deleted itself. except for that one sentence above. what you're reading now is my best recollection, hastily retyped.]

the Süleymaniye Mosque was possibly the most beautiful thing we saw in Istanbul. it's a bold statement to make about a city full of wonders. but something about the the Süleymaniye just got me. the symmetry of everything, the light pouring through arched windows, the lofty domes and shining marble, the fact I was standing inside a 500 year old masterpiece -- it was incredible.

the mosque was commissioned by Süleyman I, also known as the Süleyman the Magnificent. I'd have to say that the monument lives up to the adjective.

in addition to gorgeous tilework, calligraphy, and painstaking detail -- you will notice the lack of tourists. we encountered a handful, but nothing like the swarms elsewhere. though my visit to the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque was special [and still something I recommend to any visitors to Istanbul] it was the the Süleymaniye that stole my heart.

fun fact: in ye olden days, they used to hang ostrich eggs from the chandeliers to keep away spiders. you can see one [or a modern replica] in the above photo. I have no idea if it was actually effective. but, I kindof love that they still keep up the tradition.

also... how amazing are those huge chandeliers?

the Süleymaniye Mosque is the most famous work of an extremely important Ottoman architect, Mimar Sinan. he was one of the world's most influential designers -- and bear in mind that he was a contemporary of both Michelangelo and DiVinci. I mean, his apprentices designed the Taj Mahal. kindof a big deal.

but what really gets me is that as incredible as the Süleymaniye is, there is an even more stunning mosque out there that Sinan considered his ultimate masterpiece. [the Selimiye Mosque, in Edirne]

Sinan was buried in a tomb near the Süleymaniye, in a garden to the north of the terrace. the Sultan Süleyman and his wife are also entombed there. I suggest taking an extra few minutes to explore the garden, and enjoy the views of the city from the terrace.

visiting the mosque

the Süleymaniye is located near the Grand Bazaar, and would make an excellent addition to a visit there. while there is usually appropriate clothing to rent or borrow, you might consider dressing for the occasion. all visitors will need to remove their shoes and have shoulders and knees covered to enter the mosque, while women also are required to cover their heads. we wore slip-on shoes or sandals and brought light scarves to wrap around our heads and shoulders to make things easy.

I would suggest timing your visit to arrive in between prayer times. this will help you avoid both the crowds, and disturbing those at prayer. when at the mosque, please be quiet and respectful, as you would in any place of worship.

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