Saturday, August 14, 2010

Halong Bay Vietnam - Where dragons lie


Nothing is more romantic than cruising Halong Bay in a rustic wooden junk.

After several days of being caught in the hustle and bustle of Hanoi, we badly needed to escape the chaos of Vietnam’s second largest city. So we did what most tourists here do — head for Ha Long Bay, 170km east of Hanoi.

Halong Bay Vietnam

The bay, dotted with countless mist-shrouded limestone islands, offers a stunning seascape that must rank as one of the most spectacular sights in Vietnam.

To enjoy the splendour and romance of Ha Long Bay, the wife and I joined a boat cruise. Trips of various durations are available; we opted for the popular three-day/two-night cruise. We would spend one night onboard and the second on Cat Ba Island.

The 3½ hour coach ride from Hanoi to Ha Long City took us through patchworks of rice fields. At the wharf, the scale of Ha Long Bay’s tourism business hit us as hordes of tourists milled about, while at the pier, countless wooden junks anchored close together.

The inhabitants of these floating houses in Ha Long Bay wake up every morning to the enchanting view of mist-shrouded limestone outcrops.

After waiting a while, our tour leader led us to our junk. It looked pretty much like the others, done up in rustic wood and bright yellow sails. Our boat could accommodate 20 but since our group numbered only 13, there was no fear of crowds onboard.

Ensuite cabins took up the lower deck and the lounge-cum-dining hall, the middle deck. The top deck was where the best views could be found. We promptly plonked ourselves in the deck chairs as the boat set sail.

The hazy sky cleared as we left the harbour behind. Soon, the beguiling scenery that makes Ha Long Bay a worthy World Heritage Site took over. Ribbed limestone cliffs cloaked in tufts of vegetation, rose spectacularly from the sea.

As our boat meandered through a maze of oddly shaped pinnacles and craggy rocks, we began to understand why they have earned names like Buddha Praying, Toad Islet and Rooster Rock.

Heritage sites are chosen for their cultural and historical importance as well as geological uniqueness. Ha Long Bay offers a little of all three. The view is mystical and surreal at times. The scenery that typifies Ha Long Bay is also found in Guilin, China and Phang Nga Bay in Thailand, but Ha Long Bay stands out in terms of numbers — at last count, 1,969 islands pepper the 1,553sq km bay.

There is a romantic tale of how the islets came to be. A celestial dragon and her children, sent by the Jade Emperor to stop an invasion, spat pearls into the path of the enemy. The pearls became the islands that still stand today. This legend gave rise to the name “Ha Long”, which means “dragon descending”.

There is another version which says that the islets are the bodies of the mythical beasts. Indeed, on a mist-shrouded day, pinnacles that rise from the sea do resemble the humps and bumps of dragons.

Descending dragons aside, the islets of Ha Long are more likely remnants of an ancient seabed, shoved upwards by tectonic forces, and then sculpted by wind and water. The elements have also carved cavities in these structures, thus creating hidden caves and grottoes. At Sung Sot Cave, we stood in cavernous chambers that drip with stalactites and conceal unusual cave formations.

Some limestone outcrops in the bay encircle hidden lagoons. These can be explored only by kayaks or sampan, as entry is usually just a narrow opening at the base of the outcrops. When our kayak squeezed through the low arch of an overhang, we entered a lagoon enclosed by soaring rock faces. It was dead quiet. The only other sign of life was a lone hawk circling the sky above. We instinctively paddled slower so as not to break the silence. This was indeed a small piece of heaven.

Later, we paddled past another fascinating feature of the bay — its “floating village”. This is a flotilla of houses, and even a small school, set atop floating barges.

It would be idyllic to live here, we thought: Imagine waking up to views of the enigmatic limestone islets every morning! One family was seen having a meal inside their little boathouse while on another, an elderly man was repairing nets.

The people mostly fish for a living but many have learnt to exploit the burgeoning tourism of the bay — they load their sampan with seafood, snacks, fruits and even locally made wine to sell to tourists on junks.

Yes, there were plenty of other junks like ours sailing through the bay but fortunately, the tourist hordes were easily swallowed up by the bay’s generous proportions. Our boat dropped anchor in a quiet bay in the company of several other junks that evening. After dinner, we hung out on the top deck, trading stories and watching the peaks surrounding us turn a dusky blue.

As night fell, the winter chill crept in and we quickly retired to the comfort of our cabin.

Jungle-clad island

On the second morning, we sailed towards Cat Ba Island, one of the biggest in the bay.

Cat Ba town is squeezed into a strip of land wedged between the water’s edge and limestone hills. Candy-coloured hotels line the streets of what was once a fishing village. Fortunately, the rest of the island remains largely unspoilt.

The areas consisting of coastal mangroves, freshwater swamps, beaches, caves and waterfalls were declared a national park in 1986. Then, in 2004, the Cat Ba Archipelago was designated a Unesco Biosphere Reserve.

The park is famous for its critically endangered golden-headed langur, which lives nowhere else and is believed to number no more than 60.

To appreciate the park’s biodiversity, we trekked for two hours to its highest point at Yen Ngua peak. The climb through the rainforest was steep in places, requiring us to scramble over tree roots and sharp rocks. But neither the langur nor other wildlife made an appearance.

At the summit, we clambered up a watch tower and found a carpet of green all around. Unfortunately, the sea was nowhere in sight.

The dining room of the sailing junk.

Later, we headed for the beach east of the town. A boardwalk hugs the rocky coast to link the three main beaches of the island. From there, the views were fantastic and as the boardwalk skirted the cliff face, we could see the island’s geological features up close. It being winter, the beaches were empty of crowds. The cold kept us from the water, so we just basked in the sun and relished the peaceful environment.

In the evenings, locals and visitors alike stroll along the harbour promenade, stopping to admire the musical fountain by the waterfront. All cruise tours include meals but it might be worthwhile eating at the many seafood restaurants in the town. We opted for a light dinner of pho bo or beef broth noodles.

The next morning, finding the hotel breakfast of toast with butter and jam too boring, we went in search of local fare and found a roadside stall offering banh cuon, Vietnam’s version of our chee cheong fun. Instead of a topping of curry or sweet sauce, the slivers of soft noodles were dunked into a bowl of tangy, herb-flavoured fish sauce. It was delicious!

From Cat Ba Island, we boarded our wooden junk for the cruise back to the mainland.

Seeing it was our last chance to experience the splendour of Ha Long Bay, we promptly sank into the deck chairs and watched the tranquil scenery slide by.

Like a scene in a Chinese brush painting, the limestone outcrops loomed mysteriously in the morning mist. Ha Long Bay is enchanting, and a welcome respite from the madness of Hanoi.



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