Halong Bay, in northern Vietnam, is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. AHalong Bay in VietnamCredit: Author junk boat cruise is the best way to appreciate the ancient limestone formations that characterize the area. This article is a guide to the Halong Bay junk boat experience.

There’s quite possibly no better way to relax than lying atop a converted junk as it carves its way slowly around Vietnam’s Halong Bay. In every direction, noble limestone karsts rise like royalty out of the beautiful green water. The junk weaves in and out of these striking rock formations and the occasional traditional floating fishing village as you lie back and soak up the sun.

These karsts have been forming for around 500 million years, so it’s no wonder that the bay is associated with legend. The name Halong, which translates as “descending dragon,” originates from a tale about the Chinese trying to invade Vietnam. The gods wanted to protect Vietnam, and sent a jewel-spitting dragon from the mountains down to the coast. The Chinese fled, and the dragon’s humps can still be seen today. They are the limestone islets that jut out of the bay!

When it’s time to cool off, the most daring can leap into the cool water from the top story of the boat, and the more sensible can dive in from the deck. A supervised kayak across the still water, as birds circle above you, is the most serene way to take in the scenery. Make your way deep inside darkened limestone caves, where water droplets drip from the roof and echo all around. Your guide may even lead you on a journey into a karst. Clambering over wet and slippery rocks and ducking through small crevices, stopping in the more cavernous areas to admire the stalactites, you’ll finally emerge back in the sunlight. In the center of the limestone rock is a small freshwater lake, or a sinkhole, surrounded by trees and bushes. It’s its own little ecosystem, surrounded by the sea.

The Beauty of Halong BayCredit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gregw66/3694429639/

As the sun sets, put your feet up with a drink from the bar and enjoy the view whilst you chat to the new friends you have made. In the dining room, dinner will then be served—a well-earned meal at the end of a long and rewarding day.

Halong Bay junk cruises can last for one day, or for one or two nights. Prices vary according to the size and luxury of the boat. The packages include all meals, and the overnight cruises provide passengers with an en suite cabin. Tours can be booked online or from your hotel in Hanoi. The package price should also include transportation from Hanoi to Halong Bay and back. A one-way journey takes about three hours.

Gorgeous Halong BayCredit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/14466267@N07/2996067041/

As a World Heritage Site, Halong Bay is truly beautiful, so respect the scenery and don’t litter or take anything away. Finally, before you decide to visit Halong Bay, make sure you are an informed tourist. Be aware that an accident early in 2011 left twelve people dead when a boat sank in the night, raising concerns about the safety of some of the boats.