The iconic but not often seen (once out on the water) Junk sails of Ha Long Bay.
Via a brief stay and a night in the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi, Mike and I are now en route for 3 days and 2 nights of hopeful beauty and adventure in Vietnam’s oft talked and enthused about Ha Long Bay. I think it is part of most peoples’ Vietnam itinerary that everyone gets excited about having been tempted by postcard vistas of mind-boggling geological magnificence all the way to the Bay. As with so many sites of phenomenal and unusually evocative natural beauty in the world, many a myth and legend has accrued to this northern atoll saturated span of the modern day ‘Gulf of Tonkin’.
Lunch aboard the good ship 'some-thing-or-other' :)
Our friendly but not linguistically gifted guide for our first day known as ‘651’ to the group was not able to adequately communicate the mythical narrative for us whilst supping his Beer Hanoi’s, so in a rare moment of internet gleaned narrative cross-pollination, and in the name of a good yarn I have ‘borrowed’ the following insight :
A Legend of Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay - I am told - literally translates as ‘Bay of Descending Dragons’.
“Long ago, in the first founding days, the Viet people were attacked by foreign aggressors. The Jade Emperor sent the Mother Dragon and her band of Child Dragons to help the Viet people fight the invaders. While the enemy vessels were launching massive attacks against the mainland, the dragons descended in flocks from the sky.
They spat out innumerable pearls which changed into jade stone islands the moment they touched the water. These islands linked together to form firm citadels that checked the enemy’s advance and smashed their vessels to pieces.
After the invaders were driven out, Mother Dragon and her Child Dragons did not return to Heaven but stayed on earth, right at the place where the battle occurred. The spot where the Mother Dragon landed was Ha Long, and where the Child Dragons came down was Bai Tu Long. The place where their tails violently wagged was called Long Vi, the present-day Tra Co Peninsula.”
“Pretty cool huh!”. But before we chase the dragons out to see, Mikey and me and the rest of our gang are gathered up from the various streets of Hanoi and spirited away through grey, grey horrible drizzly weather by mini-van bus, nearly four hours out to Ha Long City.
Not a great drive. Not great scenery, unpleasant weather or not. Not a pretty city. Just keep going on through the crudge and remember those postcards! Soon enough, and hungry enough we have boarded our boat; our abode for the next 24 hours and have pulled a little way out of the choked harbour area to idle in the misty waters and have our first meal. A pleasant, crowded communal lunch. The boat will become a lot less crowded later on (down to just 16 people) but the first stint of the journey is done with a full load, half of the people to be dropped off at Cat Ba
island later in the day.
[ Information & tips on Ha Long Bay tour packages at end of my second Ha Long Bay entry ]
Out from the mainland, the rain has stopped and will not bother us one second more for the three days of our trip.
"Aaaaaaaaarrrgh" Organised tourism at its most gaudy and humiliating! ;D
What remains though is the eerie overcast white mist atmosphere that actually (despite the predictable blue-skies postcard images) is the more renowned weather system for mysterious looking and feeling Ha Long Bay. And so appropriate and in its own way. So utterly bewitching does this white-grey creeping, ghostly miasma prove to be to my eyes. And to most other peoples. What better way to feel you are in Another Place. Mother Nature’s realm. A place of timelessness. Away from the Lands of Men. Reality is lost; swallowed up behind us, concealed from view by a white shroud that mourns the passing of dull Reality, and throws its own spectral soft white light onto the fantastical, phantasmagorical forms of the hundreds upon hundreds of rock stone formations that sit silently staring back at us.
Spirits of the Sea. Their attentions divided between the passing of so many of our little, puny, peetling boats and their own reflections in the steely grey, dead calm waters of their world. Undisturbed for thousands of years… until now. Until the advent of Mass Tourism. Be careful people and tour operators, what if the slumbering dragons should awake once more?!
Following lunch and a glide through the Gulf of Tonkin to the outer periphery of the karst stone scenery that will define our environment for the coming days, the initial sightseeing stop is at an island where is housed the imaginatively titled ‘Amazing Cave’. Before you can be umm?… amazed?… the first thing that will definitely open your eyes is the huuuuuuuuge number of people and their pseudo-Junk style boats that enter Ha Long Bay on a day to day basis.
Inside the Disneyland of the 'Amazing Cave'
It’s clearly super huge business and for this first hour of our trip you just cannot believe how many people have been ferried out to one destination at exactly the same time! All the worst accoutrements of tourism are here. Tacky shops. Tacky people. Tour groups all donning their identical canary yellow identifying baseball caps. Hawkers. Squawkers. Too-loud talkers. Amateur photographers by the gazillion. And a strange megaphone that calls out behavioural instructions to arrivers in the plumbest sounding Queen’s English possible. “You must not do this… You must not do that… etc, etc is forbidden.” “Aaaaaagh!”.
There’s a gigantic snake like queue to get up the stairway and through the cave mouth and the whole episode reminds me precisely of queuing in line for a big popular rollercoaster at a theme park!
The cave itself? Is it ‘Amazing’? I know you’re dying to know.
How many boats can one bay hold for Flip's sake!!!
Well it is pretty darned impressive it has to be said. Another of Mother Nature’s little marvels. Well, little on Her scale anyways! A vast vaulted ceiling dripping with the languid, xenomorphic limestone tear drops and encrustations familiar to such primordial underground environments. The atmosphere and even, strangely, ‘authenticity’ of the site though are challenged in the minds eye by the fact that a peculiar decision has been made to illuminate the whole place with a symphonic array of gaudy, rainbow coloured halogen lights! It’s most bizarre. Kind of what you would have expected had Walt Disney ever been the head an UNESCO Natural Heritage Site planning committee. Or as if you were staring at the results of a controlled explosion in a giant ice cream factory orchestrated by H.
R.Giger. Time to smirk and move on I feel. (There is a less visited, more naturally lit cave just a little further up from the ‘Amazing’ cave. Signposted and easy to access and walk around in ten minutes or so, so dash up and take a squiz even if your tour guide does not encourage you to do so.)
After our boat miraculously, eventually extricates itself from the absolute mosh-pit traffic jam of tens of tens of boats crowded into the cave dock we are set adrift amidst the mist and karst cliffs once more. Thankfully. Our travel gang sat up on the top deck, chatting, and letting the cool breeze equally stir and chill our imaginations. It is soooo nice to have cool weather once more! How my soul has missed it! And strangely, for the most part, the horrible claustrophobic gaggle of other boats and tourists will not be present again for the rest of our time in the bay.
Apart from the necessity of a large number of boats mooring up in the same bay area at night (a legal requirement as there are only 4 designated mooring stations in Ha Long Bay) we will be mostly along at sea. Plenty of space even for the harshest excesses of Ha Long Bay tourism that has glutted out into the Gulf with all its petroleum slicks rain bowing through the waters in its wake over the last decade. Just keep an eye on the environmental costs undoubtedly being racked up my friends!
We visit one of the fascinating, long standing floating village communities that incredibly subsist out here amidst the watery cliffs. Corrugated roof houses and fisheries and even a government supported school all moored, permanently afloat on giant plastic drums. The incredible places that a sense of life, purpose and community on this planet can settle themselves.
Testament to human endeavour, traditional life and harsh necessities. Small boats bearing parent-rower and child-fruit sellers are deployed in their multi-coloured splendour to tempt the many visitors with “pineapplepineapplepineapple!”
. Our boat moors here for a time and those that wish (most of us) for 40,000VND ($2.30) a head drop down onto one of the local boats where a couple of kids fight to prove their might in cranking the ancient engine into life before a local lad guides our boat (by virtue of the bay being at low water) through various, sometimes inaccessible, cave entrances to little secluded lagoon areas that surround their village. Then a quick ride through the ‘village’ itself. Again, I am impressed at the resourcefulness of people.
Of youth. An also the unconquerable popularity of football, now Vietnam’s as well as my own country’s (and arguably the World’s) most popular sport. No pitches to be found here of course but a group of lads dexterously splash and kick and dive about through the shallows on the tiniest possible sandbar. Soccer stars of the sea. Maybe one day the land too? They’d make great rainy-day players in the UK!
A fab ‘n’ fun evening is spent on the boat by all. The Ha Long Bay Gang. Now reduced to a comfortable, companionable 16 or so people with our own shared rooms on board. The journey out to the mooring bay, a beautiful amble past a procession of the mist-draped rocky shadows and ghosts of the Bay. Beer and vodka flow.
"Get that engine started lad or I'll boot ya up the backside!" LOL
Local rice wine too. Dinner heartily consumed. It’s night. Golden generator powered lights glitter reflected in the night waters. Industrious Vietnamese boatwomen propel their little skiff boats through the dusk waters with their crossed oars. Their boats laden with treasures galore. Choco Pies. Oreos. Pringles. Fruit and cold beers. Their trade much frowned upon by the boat captains and their staff, but its cheaper so be surreptitious in your trading; quiet and friendly in your bantering and stubborn in your bargaining and load up for the night ahead.
Inside the main boat saloon everyone’s in perpetual hysterics at some curious game where everyone adopts an animal which must be imitated with sound and motion and ‘passed along’ to the next player in rapid succession.
Again, commercial cleverness & opportunism proves it knows no bounds in Vietnam. The boat ladies of Ha Long Bay.
Boris the cockerel. Lahiba the crab. Astrid the buffalo. Charlie the panting dog etc, etc… the Captain’s involved (and getting drunk on rice wine). His animal? An indeterminate species that sounds (and even to some extent looks) like a Jabberwocky trying to mate with a squeaky rubber duck. This curious beast howls into the blackened night. The dragon of Ha Long Bay, looks up from its millennia long repose… and feels a little scared.
* Source - www.halongboat.com. Their text is uncredited and given as ‘local legend’ so I feel no problem in having reiterated essentially oral ‘history’.