Edit Blog Post
Published: August 20th 2006
The dragon's handiwork appears...
We are about half an hour away from the mainland. Chains of islands occupy most of the horizon. The weather is beyond all our hopes.
More than 600km separate Huế and our next destination, Hà Nội, largest and capital city of the Socialist Republic of Việt Nam. As we have already found out 600km equals overnight bus, except one even longer than the Nha Trang - Hội An leg. It is also a route that gets very bad press from visitors to Việt Nam for appalling service, slow buses, exceptionally horrific driving (even
for here) and so on...Another option is the train, which thunders to Hà Nội at an exhilarating average speed of 35km/h. Ho ho ho...We know when to cut our losses so all the way back in Cần Thơ we booked a flight to Hà Nội from Huế on Việt Nam Airlines.
A taxi picks us up from the Mimosa Guesthouse (where do they find these names ?) and drives us to Phú Bài airport, about 15km drive away. For the first 10km or so we move forward at a slow crawl (slow ? Việt Nam ? brainerrordoesnotcompute...) - it later transpires that we were staying behind a funeral "procession" a.k.a. a Vietnamese white van with a guy perching at the back chucking fake dollar bills out of the window.
Islands, islands, islands...
In every direction, dozens of huge peaks like this one rise out of nowhere and tower over the small passenger boats that criss cross this extraordinary landscape.
Airlines proves itself to be comfortable, reliable and on time. It even
provided us with a bus to transport us the ten metres (ten metres) from terminal to aircraft. With the waiting, the packing-everyone-on, the turning-on-the-engine it took the best part of 15 minutes. By now we just sigh and smile !
After an hour in the air we find Hà Nội wet and very grey. This does not bode well at all, as we had planned to use Hà Nội purely as a staging point for a visit to the world-famous Hạ Long Bay, and the thought of seeing it under torrential rain drained all optimism from us. As you may have read in the news, a large typhoon had just swept southern China and this was the rear-end of it...we can but hope.
Hà Nội. Hà Nội...where shall I start ? I really don't know so I'll save Hà Nội for the next and last Việt Nam entry ! All I'll say now is that we just
managed to escape it with our lives, limbs and minds (sort of) intact.
Many agencies in Hà Nội arrange special overnight trips to Hạ Long Bay, some with
Surpring ? I'll say...
Stalactites, stalagmites, bizarre formations aplenty here in Surprising Cave.
the opportunity of spending the night aboard a wooden boat moored in one of the bay's countless coves. We liked this idea - so booked a 3-day 2-night trip to the bay leaving 2 days after our arrival from Huế. We whiled away the time waiting to cross Hà Nội's streets, gorging on homemade ice cream and navigating the assault course that is the Old Quarter.
5pm, the day before the intended departure. A call from the travel agency to our hotel comes through. Trip cancelled. Too many people pulled out at the last minute owing to the weather. We were really quite upset - this was one place we really were hoping to see. The agency offers alternatives...following day, one night only, blah blah blah...But we have no spare days. We have a flight to Bangkok in 3 days' time. I managed to get my money back (without hassle - this was quite something. The Vietnamese are a truly wonderful people but I'll say this - as soon as they detect the merest whiff
of a foreigner wanting his or her money back, even the people most fluent in English will suddenly cease to understand you. Rant over).
The power of water
The ceilings of the cave are covered with these beautiful patterns, all formed by waves constantly lapping against the soft limestone.
Leaving a very upset Alex in our room, there followed a pretty desperate search for some places on a 2-night trip leaving tomorrow. When, on the third attempt, I found some, I had to stop myself from jumping for joy.
The following morning a little van picks us up, does the rounds (plus ça change
), and takes us to the coast some 3 hours east of Hà Nội, past Hải Phòng and towards Hạ Long City. We spotted the dramatic karst peaks Ha Long Bay is famous for even before the sea was in sight. Rising out of the paddy fields like so many giant sails, huge limestone formations tower over the road. Reaching the sea, we have a quiet giggle at the expense of all those who pulled out of the original trip yesterday - the sky is a brilliant blue, it's hot, it's lovely. Our guide confirms - Hạ Long Bay does not see many days like this, at any time of year. Lady Luck is somewhere in north Việt Nam.
We board our vessel, a comfortable mini cruise boat with eight cabins, large dining room and sun deck. It's very swish - far more than
Finger, eh ?
"Many people think this rock looks like finger of person. Some other people think rock look like something else" - dixit Son, the guide. Do they now ?
we'd expected ! We set off from the pier - we won't be on the mainland again until the day after next. The countless limestone islands line up on the horizon. We have lunch on the boat, getting to meet our fellow passengers, and by the time we've come to pudding (more watermelon ! my fav...maybe not) the islands are upon us, towering above an azure sea and sprinkled with greenery. Soon we are surrounded, making our way through a maze of islands, many of which may never have had a human foot touch them. There are some two thousand of these islands, forming a fine haze on the map, as well as the horizon.
The afternoon is spent in exhilaratingly beautiful weather, gawping slack-jawed at the other worldly landscape unfolding before us. A bit of linguistics - Hạ Long Bay in Vietnamese is Vịnh Hạ Long
, literally meaning Bay of the Descending Dragon. Legend has it that the bay was formed by a dragon rushing from the land towards the sea. As he ran his tail gashed out huge swathes of the land. As this became covered in water, only the limestone peaks were left emerged. A mythical
The Beach ?
A little lagoon, surrounded entirely by the island. Just like "The Beach". Does a secret community of hippies live nearby ?
story quite appropriate for such a place. Even the most cack-handed photographer can make this place look wonderful (so I hope you enjoy looking at the pictures). We stop off at a particularly large island which conceals one of Hạ Long's many caves - this one appropriately baptised "Surprising Cave". The formations inside are stunning, and some of them are rather intriguing shape !
By this time it is early evening and we while away the time until dinner swimming, surrounded by the islands. As the sun sets the scenery becomes even more awe-inspiring, with the peaks silhouetted against the orange and pink sky. There are several boats moored in our channel, and shrieks of laughter periodically echo around as passengers launch themselves into the water from the top decks.
After a tasty dinner cooked up by the boat's crew, we stay up over some Hanoi
beers talking into the night with our travelling companions. It's midnight by the time we find our little cabin, equipped with hot water (huzzah !) and an air conditioning unit. Except the latter decided at about 1am to start dripping freezing water onto our faces so it got switched off.
I could take these all day
It's so hard to decide on a spot to take a picture of - this landscape redefines the term "photogenic".
spent the next day visiting Cát Bà Island, a very large island and the only inhabited one in the bay. We spend a morning walking up hillsides to view the scenery from on high. A gruelling experience in the heat but (perhaps) worth it. In the afternoon we hop on another boat (it turns out that we are hot potatoes - late booking perhaps - and we get getting squidged from one boat to the next) to a quiet part of the bay to do a little kayaking. On the way there an almighty storm whipped up and visibility went down to zero. Miraculously it died down just as fast and we were soon on the water, kayaking past endless islands, gazing up. It was a wonderful experience - completely unforgettable. After a night on Cát Bà, another ferry takes us back to Hạ Long City on the mainland, where a vehicle (with unenthusiastic aircon - everyone was melting) back to Hà Nội was waiting.
Who'd have thought it ? Typhoons, cancelled trips, a wet and grey Hà Nội - we were so lucky. And for Alex, who watched a documentary about Hạ Long Bay over ten years ago,
Hạ Long sunset
From our mooring for the night, just before a swim in the fading light and still waters.
it was a long-held dream come true. Nice dragon.
Tot: 2.267s; Tpl: 0.021s; cc: 26; qc: 107; dbt: 0.0417s; 2; m:saturn w:www (18.104.22.168); sld: 1;
; mem: 1.6mb