Swimming in Ha Long Bay

I love open water swimming.

The challenge. Being one with nature. Experiencing marine life (usually). I take it all in. As I have grown more and more accustomed to it I have looked for ways to incorporate swimming into our holidays. Three days after returning from Taiwan my husband and I joined some friends in Vietnam. Our first leg of the trip was a three day cruise on Ha Long Bay. Ha Long Bay translates to “where the dragon descends into the sea”. Looking at the islets you can see why.

photo courtesy of vietnam-travel.com

About the Bay

Ha Long is located in the South China Sea on the northern coast just south of China. This area of coast is considered a UNESCO Heritage site and is a collection of around 2,000 limestone islets in various shapes and sizes.  Around 1,700 people live in the fishing floating villages dispersed throughout the area. On our third day of our cruise we did tour one of the villages to see how they lived. Compared to the lives we have in the United States it was a different world. We used a company called Indochina Junk for our cruise. Our ship was named the Dragon’s Pearl, a real life pirate ship! Our group of 20 people got to know each other well over the three days. I was not the only swimmer but I was the first one to test out the waters.

Starting the Swim  

On the second morning, after breakfast, I decided that I did not really want to kayak again. We were supposed to do another scenic kayak tour through the islets. I asked our captain if I could swim alongside the kayaks. He looked at me as if I’d grown a second head. This poor Vietnamese man could not understand why anyone would want to get in the chilly water and swim. After going back and forth for a few minutes convincing him I really did want to swim. He agreed and assigned a staff member to act as a guardian kayak for me. I had been getting a little crazy from not having worked out in a few days and needed to stretch out. He told me we were going quite far and I assured him that was fine. I often swim “quite far”. So while our friends Heidi and James were kayaking I jumped in the water to swim at their side. Look for the red cap in the photo below to find Where’s Waldo [ or Ryan 🙂 ]

I’m the small red cap next to the kayak on the right!

Famous Last Words

Upon first jump in the water was chilly but not too bad! That should have been my first red flag. In retrospect, the water was probably around 60-65 degrees. Colder than I should have been in without a wetsuit. The water was murky but tasted clean and surprsingly minimal salinity. Most of the kayak pack was a ways ahead of me but my friends stayed near by. I would stop every so often to listen to the guide talk about the different sites a long the way. About an 40 minutes into the swim I started to wonder when we were going to turn around since I knew we’d already covered over a mile. I was starting to feel pretty cold in my fingers and toes. That being said, I felt confident that if I kept moving I could keep warm enough to make it back. It did not seem like we were turning around soon.

When to call it off and get in the boat…

A little after an hour in which for me was around 2 miles I could feel myself slowing down. Getting my arms around was harder. Kicking was harder. My calves were starting to seize up. The kayak pack had made the curve around the bend. This had me hoping we were making a loop and not going to double back at some point. I made it as far as I felt I safely could- my teeth were chattering and it was messing with my ability to breath. Currents had changed and I could tell that I had been swimming into increasingly colder water. Swimming slowly over to my guardian kayak I asked if I could get in. He said yes and hauled me aboard and quickly paddled around the corner. No sooner had we turned the corner than I could see how close we were to the boat. Another 300-400 meters and I would have been at the boat.

Warming Up, Post Swim

While I was slightly disappointed that I quit so close to the boat. I did get in over 2 miles while experiencing the incredible islets of Vietnam. I got out of the water feeling like a popsicle. The kayak group went to check out a big cave before returning to the boat. I warmed up and felt refreshed and accomplished. My husband brought me a cup of tea while we chatted about the swim and admired the sunset.  We swam the next morning around the bay that we were parked in but did not go nearly as far. Another guest came with us in the morning, he too was an Ironman and looking for some time in the water. I knew I would not get any other opportunities to swim this trip so I’m glad I made the most of the bay. Moral is, be brave and just ask if you can swim! All they can say is no. Don’t ask about the ocean life though, it’s better if you don’t know 😉


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