Published: June 25th 2012June 25th 2012
Northern Vietnam is a rich repository of history and tradition, blessed with great natural grandeur, ranging from the high mountains of the west to the magical karst islands rising from Halong Bay in the east. The latter is my destination on this Sunday morning. I am leaving Hanoi through its bustling and noisy streets and taking one of the major highways out of the capital city. However, the highway soon transforms into much more rugged roads and it is a very rough drive until we reach Halong City, formed in 1994 with the official amalgamation of Bai Chay and Hon Gai, and bisected by the narrow Cua Luc straits. Along the way, we narrowly avoid a few traffic accidents as the driving conditions are not very different from the way they were in Hanoi. I focus on the region’s fertile flatlands instead, marked with extensive paddy fields. Halong City is quickly becoming an increasingly affluent tourist town as it is a departure point to Halong Bay, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and on the list to become one of the new natural wonders of the world.
I meet our young boat guide Hung, a student working here for the
summer and trying to perfect his broken English. The boat name is Huong Hai Junk and my only companions are a mother and daughter from New Zealand and a couple from Germany that I spend most evening with on the boat after dark and another sumptuous dinner. We share past travel experiences and enjoy the contrasting quietness of the bay at night. As soon as we leave Halong City, we start sailing among, I’m told, the 1,964 pinnacle-shaped limestone and dolomite outcrops scattered across Halong Bay. Only 900+ of those actually have names. The weather is a bit hazy, but that only adds to the mystery of the landscape. According to legend, the bay was formed when a giant dragon – ha long means descending dragon – plunged into the Gulf of Tonkin, and created the myriad islets by lashing its tail. Geologists have explained that the karst topography is the product of selective erosion over the millennia. The result is a labyrinthine seascape of bizarre shaped outcrops, isolated caves, and sandy coves. We sail past the evocatively shaped islets for hours and I simply cannot get enough. It is truly a magical experience and I feel so small in
this big wonderful world, but also so free, happy, and very lucky to be here enjoying this magnificent experience.
We pass a few floating villages and the kids waive. Located near Hong Gai’s harbor, these villages include not only houseboats, but also floating fuel stations, herb gardens, kennels, and even pigpens. We then stop at Hang Sung Sot, aptly known as the cave of Awe. It is located on Bo Hon Island, which the French knew as the “Ile de la Surprise”. The first cavern in the three-chambered Sung Sot features a large, phallus-shaped rock, lit in lurid pink, and worshipped as a fertility symbol by the locals. The formations in the inner chamber, named the Serene Castle, on the other hand, are fascinating, seeming to come alive when the reflections of the water outside play upon them. From its exit up top, I enjoy a fantastic view across the bay. Back on the boat, a refreshing plate of pineapple, dragon fruit, kiwis, apples, limes, bananas, rambutans, and lychees await. I broke my rule of no fresh fruits and vegetables the first day and, despite this, my stomach is doing great, so I eat anything that comes my way
now, as always.
Our next stop is Dao Titop with an isolated beach. I take a swim and the water feels so cool as the temperature outside is another scorching 35 degrees Celsius. I also cannot resist hiking to the top of the islet where there is the most spectacular view of Halong Bay. Nobody wants to come with me. It seems they prefer the beach to my company. So I climb up alone and have absolutely no regret when I reach the top despite the dripping sweat: an unobstructed 360 degree view of Halong Bay. Solitude and quiet are my companions and I reflect on life. I thank Buddha, Laozi, and Confucius and feel blessed at this very moment. Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, known collectively as Tam Giao, Three Teachings, or Triple Religion, are the three most prominent strands in Vietnam’s religious tradition. Back on the boat, I enjoy a shower in my rustic but quaint cabin, followed by another sumptuous dinner with a mix of great Vietnamese food (salads, prawns, chicken, beef, pork, rice, morning glory (a local vegetable), pho, and more fruit) with good chilled white wine. My new German and New Zealand friends provide great
company and wonderful travel stories. I feel the travel bug catching up with me again. After everybody goes to bed, I get my laptop and start writing my blog. My typing, it seems, is just about the only noise other than that of the water and warm wind. It’s time to go to bed.
The next morning at 6:00am, we start with Tai Chi on the upper deck and a swim, followed by a copious breakfast. It is time to go kayaking and paddle among the weathered limestone pinnacles that rise almost vertically from the surrounding water, creating truly breathtaking scenery. These karst outcrops are made of sediment that settled on the seafloor in prehistoric times, which subsequently rose to the surface through geological upheaval and erosion. On exposure to warm, acidic rainfall, these striking alkaline limestone formations are worn into strange, almost spectacular shapes providing a remarkable sight. I slide on the water and into a lagoon. It is very calm until a Vietnamese woman arrives on her boat and tries to sell me pearls and shellfish… Yes, even here!
We slowly sail back to Halong City and I take many pictures on the way. After lunch,
we disembark and board the bus back to Hanoi. The trip is quite hectic yet again and when we finally reach town, I check back in to my charming hotel in the lovely old quarter. I just drop off my luggage and go back to exploring the bustling streets. I’m thinking of going back to that great restaurant, but decide on street food instead. I start with Pho, the classic Vietnamese dish combining white noodles, slices of beef, and spring onions in a rich broth. A few blocks later, I get a couple of Banh Xeo, pork and prawn pancakes wrapped in a lettuce leaf and served with a tangy lime and chili dip. I’m getting full, but a toothless woman runs after me at the corner of the next street and offers me Cha Ca, a dish that originated in Hanoi and features fried fish, noodles, dill, peanuts, and nuoc cham. I only spend about 15,000 dongs this time (75 cents) and walk happily back to my hotel. It is time to post my blog. Early tomorrow morning, I fly to Central Vietnam and Hue, former imperial city. The area offers four of Vietnam’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, three
of which I’ll have the opportunity to see. Until next time…
There are more photos below