DARKNESS SET IN when the bus I took crawled slowly on a bumpy and narrow road. The machine kept making noise, moving forward to reach our destination. I cast a glance outside. Nothing was perfectly lit. I was on a street with a name I could even pronounce. The road split a seemingly calm and orderly neighborhood. Once in a while, there were a few residentials belonging to locals. And amongst these small and modestly built houses, I spotted some establishments in Korean alphabets, hangeul.
I, however, was not on a trip in any part of Korean Peninsula. Apparently, these are properties of expatriate Korean entrepreneurs in the Vietnamese territory. Most of them were Korean restaurants set to serve Koreans and any tourists passing through the serene neighborhood. All looked dimly lit from behind the bus window I was in.
A larger restaurant was seen afar as if it were a diamond in a pitch-dark night, accentuating the typically humid tropical night with a lot of breeze sweeping softly the skin’s surface.
It was clear that the advancement in the area is thanks to the presence of foreign investors and business folks. All was made possible by the blessings of Vietnamese Communist government. It discovered that living in total isolation would do nothing but suppress its people’s living standard below the poverty line. Opening up itself to the rest of the globe seemed the best way to improve general welfare.
The 4-hour bus trip from Hanoi to this exotic destination tired me down. I grabbed a magazine. There on a page, it read in capital letters:”We’re not asking you to save the world. Just its greatest places.” Twelve breathtaking scenery photos of twelve most magnificent places on earth surrounded the aforementioned sentences. One of the photographs was one I planned to enjoy the following day: Ha Long Bay.
THAT NIGHT I slept like a baby. An inexplicable enjoyment. The night before when I was staying in Hanoi, it took me a while after midnight before I finally succumbed to the lure of bed. Toni, my Vietnamese guide’s nickname (his real name is much too difficult to pronounce for foreigners), told me Ha Long Bay is not only renowned for its natural beauty but also the coal potential.
The bay was listed as one of the World Heritage Sites in 1994 by the UNESCO. The town of Hong Gai (literally meaning “the island of women”, thanks to its womanlike landscape contour) located nearby has been increasingly busy and hectic with more people ever since. It was then stated as the capital of Ha Long province.
“There is an international port built by the French to export goods to Hai Fong port as far as 70-km from here or abroad,” Toni explained. He is a man in his mid forties, looking tanned during the smoldering summer like now.
In the 1980s, when there was a diaspora of Vietnamese, millions of natives fled their homeland. Some escaped the war-torn country by sailing on boats to more promising and stable neighbors like China, Hongkong, Malaysia, Thailand and even Batam, Indonesia before they were eventually allowed by laws to enter European countries or the United States.
I found it hard to believe that the place where I visited and is flooded by around 8 million tourists per year was also not immune to the raging Vietnam War. In 1964, the US airplanes flew low and landed there with one single mission, i.e. to demolish the significant Ha Long port. The sea port used to play an important role for the Northern Vietnam to help their Southern compatriots survive under the ruthless US opression. Yet, nowadays there is no remnant showing the bloody past.
THAT MORNING I was seeing through a French-styled window frame. Ha Long City that the night before seemed so eeriely dim was now basked under sunlight. Bright and welcoming. The hilly landscape outside caught my eyes. There was no noise, amazingly. The traffic was low.
The not-so-sunny weather enveloped us along our bus ride from the hotel to the bay. The dark clouds could not sustain long up there. The downpour wetted the coast of Ha Long at last but oddly enough, the high humidity remained.
Once my 15,000-dong cruise boat ticket was in hand, I was ready to stand in line at the port which since that morning had been swarmed with international tourists. One large blue boat approached towards where I stood like a statue for about an hour. It would carry me around the vast bay which at the time was showered heavily with raindrops.
The local legend has it that a dragon ruling the bay was said to be residing somewhere in it. The mythic beast had formed the grand spot and all of the gigantic underground caves. I almost told Toni, who narrated the story, that maybe the downpour was the dragon’s tears as it was saddened by the sudden increase of human presence in its formerly tranquil home. But I managed to hold my tongue.
A number of local fishermen in a documentary movie had claimed they saw a glimpse of a long-shaped creature under water, which resembled a dragon’s long body. It is never proven that they told the truth or allegedly sparked controversy to attract more visitors. Upon hearing that, I was reminded of Loch Ness lake in the Western Europe. Both bear the mysterious appeal exploited by humans to bring more tourists in their businesses. It is a truly best-selling story that helps them make more profits.
VIETNAMESE MOTORBIKERS ARE known to be rather unruly on streets. And it turned out the attitude was adopted by these boat drivers. They raced and bumped their boats against each other when they were leaving the quay. I panicked as I experienced a major shock after an abrupt hit. I thought it was a pure accident and both boats would crack and all of their passengers would drown (this was the time I promised to hone my miserable swimming skills). But several minutes later I came to understand that that was how they say hi to each other.
It was raining harder and harder when we almost stepped on the land again. Thankfully, the guide provided us free, thin, colorful, plastic raincoat. As the passengers in my boat and several others rushed out to sightsee, we prepared ourselves to climb up hundreds of stairs. This made some elderly and physically-challenged tourists quit their walks and took a seat to enjoy whatever they could when the other younger visitors continued the walks, slightly panting.
Sprawling around 1,553 square km in Quang Ninh Province, Vietnam, the bay is where I can find a numerous number of limestone karsts and isles. After 500 million years, the limestone here has been going through amazingly diverse conditions. Aside from its rich geodiversity and biodiversity, Ha Long Bay serves as the habitat for 14 endemic plants and 60 endemic animals.
Vietnam took seriously the UNESCO stipulation. They took further steps to beautify all the caves in Ha Long Bay. When I succeeded to roam the caves, from afar I saw colorful lights to accentuate the uniquely-shaped stalactites and stalagmites. Toni broke the silence to explain why these natural shapes are marvels. Enthusiastically, he mentioned that this stalagmite resembles the shape of an old man, another one of a giant dragon, another one of a couple and so on. I forced myself to make use of my highest level of imagination but failed. These were more artistically demanding than going on an abstract painting exhibition tour.
As the day was approaching the lunch time, I went out with Toni beside me still explaining why that day was one of the most crowded days in the year in Ha Long Bay. It was summer and thus the peak season.
While savoring the protein-laden dish, the cruise in the bay went on through the thousands of limestone islands rising out of the emerald water. The place looks like God’s artworks on the sea with limestone pillar rocks.
I was wondering what we would have as our lunch. The dish was specially made for me, Toni remarked. The cook in the boat served us a wide variety of seafood, from fish, clamshells, to lobsters. I got so stuffed afterwards I almost fell asleep on our way home back to the hotel.
As the boat was slowly but certainly slicing the water forward, I noticed the drizzle had completely stopped. Everyone else on board seemed so eager to climb up to the deck, observing what the crew was doing. Some others hoping to immortalize their visit took multiple shots of the calm and flat water scattered with high rocky islets, clear blue easy sky and horizon.
If one cannot stay long due to time constraint, even a day trip from Hanoi and enough to catch a glimpse of the picturesque Halong Bay and sunset view. would suffice. Toni recommended that I stay at night with other travellers on an overnight cruise. But too bad I had to leave for Hanoi so I wouldn’t miss my flight back.
A day trip like this would normally cost around USD 50 from a decent and reputable tour operator, with a professional guide like Toni. One may get cheaper one but be sure to check and compare what is included in the package before booking.
Toni suggested that I navigate the area either by kayak, which I row on my own, or by a bamboo boat which the villagers of the floating village row for me (and tipping around 2-3 dollars). I set aside the first option in fear of capsizing as I am no experienced kayaker as the currents can turn quite strong, and there are rocks which may cause me to either capsize the kayak or get stuck.
The bay is a natural beauty, calming and exotic with rock outcrops and small islands, surrounded by floating villages of local fishermen. A real treasure of Vietnam, the region, and in fact the world.
I sat down and lay my sleepy head on a shady bench. “Toni, please wake me up when we get onshore,” I requested. “Or when the dragon appears,” I added.
It was one fine day at Ha Long Bay but I hadn’t encountered the dragon yet. Perhaps in my slumber, the dragon would show up. (*)