The distinguishable red flag of Vietnam fluttered against the breeze as our traditional two tiered, wooden boat sat side by side with its kin. We were waiting, waiting like we were part of a large fleet on a major expedition to find new lands…
A whistle in the distance was blown and then we were off…
As our boat slowly sailed towards hundreds of rock formations, indeed I felt like I was living a Pirates of the Caribbean tale, sailing through mythical lands where foreboding creatures lurked around us. Limestone pilasters rose out of the emerald green waters like guardsmen, high above us in their thousands.
I was at Halong Bay and this – the mystery ahead of us – is Vietnam’s most precious jewel, well deserving of its UNESCO World Heritage status. This is Mother Nature’s sculptural collection of priceless art; a geologists textbook example of earth’s transformation over 500 million years when tectonic forces slowly thrust the limestone above the water-line.
Naturally, with the love of all things myth and legend, the Vietnamese have given Halong Bay its own tale far more romantic and captivating than its facts and figures. Affectionately called ‘Descending Dragon Bay’ in Vietnamese, legend tells the story of a Jade Emperor who called upon a fleet of powerful dragons to support the people’s resistance against a band of invaders. They spat out a heavy shower of gems, which upon impact with the ocean, created thousands of rocky mountains. Providing a solid defence in these waters, the enemies’ boats were sunk, and branded heroes, the dragons were allowed to stay where their tails now collectively form the famous Long Vi beach.
Science or myth, Halong Bay is undeniably ethereal… And despite the put-putting of the motor, the silence was strangely deafening as we sailed past each towering pinnacle. They loomed over us, it’s scale and mass made me feel small and insignificant. Each one had its own face, it’s own identity…… Angular and sharp, wide, robust and rounded, some with a head of green foliage that further personified each karst as a guard to this treasured seascape.
I imagined their words of warning as we coasted past each one in to the heart of the treasure… “Dare to enter, and soon you will feel our wrath!” they whispered to me as I stood at the helm.
But they let us through undisturbed; false threats diluted away by the thousands of tourists that charter these waters. And all notion that we were in the most surreal and mysterious place on earth were just as quickly watered down as we reached the famous floating village of Cua Van, nestled in amongst a cluster of karsts.
It’s an odd place to set up home but amazingly, these villages have been home to generations of fishing folk who earn their living from the bay’s bountiful supply of marine life and growing tourism. Some villagers are even said to have never stepped foot on land… Indeed, a baby’s first ‘paddle’ is more appropriate than a baby’s first ‘step’.
It was back to basics here… Houses were set atop of barges with corrugated roof tops to protect its inhabitants against the unpredictable weather conditions. There was no such thing as a pavement, no sanitation, no creature comforts… The only modern intervention was electricity, operated by a generator.
We jumped in to a row of boats to explore the village from a closer perspective. Five of us climbed in… I’m guesstimating a load of over 400kgs, but our lady at the helm didn’t seem to struggle.
As seems to be the case in Vietnam, it was the women who put in the hard graft. I felt almost embarrassed for the men folk as they swung lazily in their hammocks on small verandas, cigarette dangling from their mouths as they played cards with their male counterparts.
She steered the boat towards the mouth of a limestone karst; a gaping hole beneath a mammoth mound of rock that seemed to defy gravity. And then we emerged in to an open chamber with soaring faces of limestone rising all around us. If it wasn’t for the oohing and ahhing of the orange life-jacket clad Chinese tourists, I might have felt like Blackbeard in his Queen Anne’s Revenge discovering and pilfering precious jewels.
But it was far from a forgotten treasure now, more a Disneyland on water. The more adventurous of tourists were adrift on kayaks, happy to shuttle themselves around. Others like me snapped away through our mega lenses on big, expensive cameras that exemplified the huge chasm of rich versus the poor of the fishing folk. Our lady seemed none the wiser though. She smiled humbly at us, offered to take our picture and like a pro operated the Panasonic’s, the Canon’s and Pentax’s with surprising familiarity and ease.
“Tốt?” she asked seeking reassurance.
“ Tốt! Cảm ơn! (Good!Thank you!)” I replied gratefully although the photo of me was horrendous! The unsociable 6am start for the day trip made me look like I had been at sea for days! I suddenly wished I had opted for the 2 or 3 night cruise just so I could sleep on the much talked about paradisiacal beach of Long Vi, but my Vietnam itinerary was packed. I was heading to the beautiful stepped terraces of Sapa tonight and Halong Bay had to be ruefully compromised.
Separated from the 2-night tourists, us day-trippers boarded back on to our cruise boat for a hearty banquet of the local produce. Halong Bay is proud for not only being one of the New 7 Wonders of the Natural world, but also one of the most famous destinations for its seafood. Our dining tables were covered edge to edge with platefuls of juicy prawns, morning glory, grilled monkfish with stewed tomatoes, fresh crab and amples of the Vietnamese staple, rice. We tucked in, lingering in this lavish moment like we were rich brigands and pirates.
Continuing this moment of pretence, we were heading to our last and final stop of the day to seek out treasure… This time going beyond the limestone pinnacles to explore Halong Bay’s grottoes, reachable via hundreds of steps.
These grottoes, affectionately named ‘Surprise Cave’ have been visited since the French discovered them more than 100 years ago. They cover some 10,000 m2 and are 30 metres high, so immense it can take thousands of people at a time.
I walked nervously beneath thousands of stalactites and stalagmites along a 500-meter paved passage and in to a large chamber that was the size of the Royal Albert Hall in London. A flow of natural light peeped through an opening and bathed the surfaces, adding to the enchantment and awe of the grotto. The ceiling was decorated with stalactites like chandeliers and the floor presented more elaborate shapes resembling elephant, horse and flowers – all with its legendary tales.
It was an incredible feat of nature that left me standing rooted to the spot. Despite the jostling crowd of tourists that came and went, it was strangely quiet. Perhaps we were all worried that the slightest murmur would send a knife-edged stalagmite come crashing down from the heavens.
There were no real riches to be found here, but for me the treasure was the scenery – I was at the highest peak overlooking Halong Bay… Sunset was approaching. The sky was tinged with a watercolour wash of blush pink… Thousands of limestone karsts were dotted before me, each one darkening as the sun made her way down towards the shoreline in the distance…
The sea chantey “Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Pirate’s Life for Me” echoed through my head as we sailed back to shore. Anna the buccaneer had come away empty handed but she was content and full…