Halong Bay’s caves attract a million tourists each year to marvel at the otherworldly rock formations. CAROLYN BOYD reports.

Through the dim, yellow light, the entire cast of The Lord Of The Rings are staring at me. Next to them stands the Virgin Mary and, if I squint a bit, I can just about make out Jesus. Thankfully it isn’t a new religious interpretation of Peter Jackson’s trilogy – I’m standing in one of the three huge chambers of the Hang Sung Sot caves in Vietnam’s Halong Bay and if I let my imagination go wild, the faces peering out at me from the stalagmite and stalactite formations could give me nightmares later on.

These caves are just some of many open to visitors to the bay, most of whom sail among the 1600 green and rocky islands and islets in junklike boats on trips lasting two or three days. The caves are the first stop on our excursion and, while I’m already feeling quite alien having only arrived in Vietnam the day before, they really look like something from another planet. Many of the formations, which are lit up in yellow, are several metres high and have been formed over millions of years.

As we wander through a narrow gap in the cave’s wall and emerge into the second chamber we’re confronted by the protrusion that the Lonely Planet describes as the ‘penis rock’. This huge formation juts out at a 45-degree angle and is illuminated by pink lights. Perhaps the owners of the cave decided to make the most of the fact the locals consider it a symbol of fertility.

As we climb out of the third chamber via a vertiginous stairway, the cave opens up to a breathtaking view of the bay. Half a dozen boats are floating below us in the Gulf of Tonkin, their orange sails fanning elegantly out over their roofs. They’re surrounded by a few of the bay’s verdant peaks rising up out of the emerald water. Legend has it that the islands were created by a dragon whose lashing tail carved out the valleys between the peaks. As the sea filled up the valleys, only the highest points were visible.

Some of them are most certainly high. As we approached the first few islands earlier in the day, huge green-black domes emerged from the eerie, silver mist hugging the horizon. Like most trips, ours includes an overnight stay on a roomy and comfortable boat and, as the sun sets over the islands, the lights from the other boats moored around us start twinkling in the dark.

I wake the next morning to the sound of splashing as my fellow shipmates launch themselves into the sea for a pre-breakfast dip. I emerge bleary-eyed from my cabin to see the mist has cleared. The scenery is breathtaking and it isn’t long before I, too, am floating in the cool, green water surrounded by a dozen or so uninhabited rocky peaks. Across the water is a pearl farm, and little huts on stilts look over large areas of nets.

Later on we find another great spot to enjoy the scenery. After a breathy hike up the steps to the pagoda-like platform on the top of Tiptop Island, we’re rewarded by a jaw-dropping 360-degree view. It isn’t hard to understand why this has been a Unesco World Heritage site since 1994 and that more than a million tourists visit the bay every year. Tip Top Island is certainly testament to the visitor numbers as it has gone to great pains to cater to the Western visitor – an artificial beach hugs its shoreline and plastic zoo animals are dotted along the pathways.

It isn’t long before I realise the most beautiful aspect of this island is its surroundings. Another aspect that reminds you you’re in top tourist territory is the number of cone-hatted women rowing around in little boats piled high with fruit and Western goods.

Hey lady! You want Pringles? You want banana? You want pineapple?” they yell up at your boat. At 15,000 dong (50p) for a huge bunch of bananas, it’s tempting to reach over and take them up on their offer. While the visitors are good for local tradespeople, the huge visitor numbers are having a ruinous effect on much of the coral lurking below the surface. Much of it is already suffocating from the silt that has been dumped in the sea from nearby coal mines, but what makes this worse are the souvenir traders who cut it up to turn into key rings and other tacky mementoes.

Despite the more ruinous aspects of tourism, the bay is by no means spoiled. The elegant wooden boats, many with fine oriental detail, actually add to the beauty of the bay and as we sail away from the area and back to Halong City, I wonder where else on earth you can see hobbits, giant penis rocks, lively locals and outstanding beauty all in one place. •

• Carolyn Boyd took a two-day tour from Kangaroo Café, 18 Bao Khanh St, Ha Noi, which cost US$59. The maximum group size is 10. Kangaroo Café and many other tour operators in Hanoi offer two- and three-day visits to Halong Bay. Return flights with Cathay Pacific (via Hong Kong) into Hanoi and out of Ho Chi Minh City from £730 per person through Opodo (0871-277 0090).”