“My background is flying sea planes in Canada but this one has so many bells and toys I couldn’t turn it down” says pilot Mike at the wheel of Hai Au Aviation’s impressive Cessna Grand Caravan Amphibian, as we make our way from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay by seaplane in north east Vietnam.
This is, I have to say, the perfect alternative to the only other option to get to Ha Long Bay, a three and a half hour drive across country. Vietnam’s UNESCO protected jewel in the crown, is a stunning archipelago of 1,969 limestone pillars and islets rising up from an opal sea covering almost 2,000 square kilometres and there is no doubt, the best way to see its primitive beauty for the first time, is from the air. Even better is to see it all close up as you land on water for an overnight boat stay, and that is exactly what I’m doing.
My small group of fellow passengers are already on the coach as it picks me up at my Hanoi hotel the newly opened Silk Path Boutique. John and Sally from the UK and Eric and his wife Britte from Germany who are, as it turns out, a private pilot and flight attendant. Excellent, I think to myself, if things get out of hand on board I can call on them for help.
I remind myself to get a seat next to them.
Hanoi airport is as busy as usual, but our private check in is pleasantly crowd free and we’re greeted almost like family as we receive our boarding passes and drop off our bags. Just a few minutes later the bus drops us off at the gleaming white Cessna and Mike is there to welcome us on board. “Morning all, just flew in from Ha Long Bay and it’s looking pretty good weather wise” I stick close to Eric and Britte as we climb in.
The ten-seater is a cosy fit as Mike and his co pilot squeeze by us after watching our bags get stowed. Eric is glued to the controls and getting very excited at all the digital effects on offer.
I ask Mike “is landing on water a lot different from a runway then?”
“OK, how different?”
“Well, you have to allow for the wind and the waves for a start, then make sure there are no boats encroaching our approach.”
I move closer to Eric
In no time we’re airborne, and Hanoi slips away below, replaced by endless fields of green. John and Sally are playing with their tablets and Eric’s fallen asleep.
Just 45 minutes later, the coast of Quang Ninh Province appears and just beyond, suddenly as if by magic, we’re greeted by a cluster of rocks jutting out of the sea. “Ok folks, welcome to Ha Long Bay, let’s take a closer look” announces Mike as the plane swoops around and down offering us a stunning bird’s eye view of an extraordinary natural landscape. A Mother Nature tapestry of limestone rock, a cast of thousands, all shapes and sizes spreading out below us.
John and Sally’s tablets are discarded and Eric is wide awake now as the tableaux unfolds. Boats and junks hug tiny bays and inlets as we pass one last time before taking a sharp curve and start our final approach.
It is exhilarating stuff as the water rushes towards us, a sea of green. A digital voice wails “water landing approaching” as we gently caress a wave, then another and then as the plane settles, a spray on both sides signals we’ve landed safe and sound.
Remarkably, the seaplane taxis for a short while on water before the wheels engage and it rolls up a ramp to park into the waiting arms of Hai Au Aviation’s Ha Long Bay ground team.
Eric wants to do it all over again. And of course we will, in reverse, when we return to Hanoi after a night aboard a private junk exploring Ha Long Bay’s cast of thousands up close. After bidding my fellow passengers farewell, in minutes I’m greeting a by some new friends, my crew, as I board my L’Azalee junk for a private overnight cruise, but this is, as they say, another story.
Tell me more about Ha Long Bay by seaplane
Hai Au Aviation runs daily flights to Ha Long Bay from Hanoi from $275 each way. The airline also operates regular flights to Ninh Binh from Hanoi and Ha Long Bay.
Getting to Vietnam
The bespoke travel experts Experience Travel Group (+44 203468 6268) offer a 10-day tour of Vietnam from £2,567 per person, including flights, transport, accommodation and selected excursions.
Vietnam Airlines offers the UK’s only nonstop flights to Vietnam, with six flights per week from Heathrow to Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City on new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners – and excellent onward connections via its comprehensive network of over 40 destinations in Asia, including 23 within Vietnam and Indochina. Return fares to Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi currently start from £391 or £425 per person respectively, inclusive of taxes.
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