By Joel Collins
Local legend claims that giant dragons created the islands of Halong Bay long ago to protect the Vietnamese people from invaders. Cruising aboard a traditional Chinese-style junk through the thousands of limestone karst islands, it’s easy to imagine an invading navy becoming disoriented and lost in the never-ending maze of bizarre rock formations. Fortunately, what was once an imposing strategic barrier is now a welcoming destination for nature lovers and photographers. Protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Halong Bay offers photographers a wonderful opportunity to create unique images of one of the most dramatic meetings of land and sea anywhere on Earth.
Halong Bay has two seasons—a cool, dry winter and a warm, wet summer. Both seasons offer great photo opportunities. Bright, sunny days and blue skies reveal an endless procession of islands in every direction, especially memorable when viewed from a vantage point on the peak of an island. Cool, foggy days shroud the islands in mystery, gradually revealing new shapes protruding from the emerald green waters.
There is a small population that lives in floating villages in the bay. The villages are tucked into protected bays and coves and offer everything a regular village would, including stores, temples, restaurants, and schools. These people make their living from the waters by fishing and growing pearls. They rarely set foot on solid ground. They can often be spotted rowing small boats from one village to another, offering a human scale next to the imposing formations.
The waters of Halong Bay are usually extremely smooth due to the large number of islands that block the wind and waves. When cruising through the islands, the scenery is in slow but constant motion, scrolling past like an ancient Asian tapestry. This motion has several effects on photography.
First, it means that the scenery is always changing. If you leave your camera in your cabin and then run to get it when you see something interesting, the scene will be different by the time you get back to the deck. Always keeping your camera close will ensure that you are always ready.
Second, no two photos will be exactly the same, even when taken just a few seconds apart. This can be an issue when shooting multi-image panoramas or bracketing exposures with the intention of combining the images in post-processing. Third, use a slightly higher than normal shutter speed to prevent motion blur. Image stabilization will also ensure sharp photos.
Many of the limestone islands are hollow and have large caves inside or along the water’s edge. Venturing ashore on foot or in a small boat is a great way to explore the caves and a fun opportunity for photographers. Wide angle lenses and photo stitching will sometimes be required to capture the full scope.
While some islands are tiny, others are quite large. The largest island, Cat Ba, is the only populated island in the bay. Thirteen thousand people live on Cat Ba in several different villages. About half of the island is a National Park that was established to protect the Cat Ba langur, one of the most endangered species of primate in the world. Sharp eyes can see the langurs and their orange-haired juveniles climbing in the trees and steep cliffs of the island. Approaching slowly by small boat is one of the best ways to get close enough to the animals for photos.
The amazing landscapes, fascinating culture, delicious food, and friendly people of Vietnam offer endless opportunities for photographers. No visit to this amazing country would be complete without a visit to Halong Bay and the thousands of islands made by dragons.
Joel Collins will be leading another photo tour to Vietnam from September 6-20, 2018. In addition to three days in Halong Bay, other photo opportunities include the bustling streets of the Old Quarter in Hanoi, colorful hill tribe markets and terraced rice fields in the Northern mountains, the Imperial City in Hue, and glowing lanterns at dusk in the ancient port town of Hoi An. An optional extension to Southern Vietnam includes a motorbike tour of Saigon and the floating markets in the Mekong Delta. For more information, please visit www.phototc.com. For more photos from Joel Collins, please visit www.joelcollins.com.