There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Monday, 26 March 2012

Halong Bay: Part 3 of Vietnam North to South

Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and probably the most visited tourist attraction in northern Vietnam. The huge bay, peppered with almost two thousand improbably shaped islands, is a maritime version of the karst topography we had previously seen in South West China at Shilin, Wangfenlin and along the Li River south of Guilin.

We set off early on Sunday morning. ‘The highway is in good condition,’ Joe told us, ‘so it will take about four hours.’ This seemed a long time for a journey of 150 km, but it was actually an underestimate. Nothing moves very fast on Vietnamese roads. The Red River delta is densely populated and there is ribbon development almost all the way. Four towns were marked on my map between Hanoi and Ha Long, but it was impossible to tell where the ribbon broadened into unsigned urban areas. We seemed to be forever driving down the high street of a small town – and a small town where everyone owned a motorbike.
Hanoi to Ha Long
Forever driving down the high street of a small town

Leaving Hanoi, we passed some pill boxes left over from the French war, and this started us talking about the more recent American War. Like all our guides Joe was too young to have been directly involved, but except for the youthful Minh in Sapa, all had stories to tell. Joe spoke of the uncle who had been killed in Laos, and of his family’s experience of bombing raids on Hanoi, but his clearest memories were of the later economic turmoil.

Agriculture was nationalised and farmers were required to hand over all their produce in return for vouchers. Human nature being what it is, production tumbled and there was less and less in the shops to exchange for the vouchers.  Queuing from early morning was the only way to be sure of food. Joe recalled being sent as a teenager to do the family queuing. After several hours he reached the front only to discover he no longer had his voucher. Whether he had lost it, or his pocket had been picked he still does not know.

On another occasion his mother somehow acquired a chicken. They cut the carcase up with scissors - the usual Vietnamese way of 'carving' a chicken (giving it a few solid smacks with a cleaver) would have alerted the neighbours who might have reported them to the authorities.

Change started in 1986 and the current ‘state capitalism’ has brought Vietnam – with some ups and downs - to its present situation of fast and sustained economic growth.

A field of salad
between Hanoi and Ha Long

We paused to look at some fields of salad vegetables - salad is common in Vietnam, though virtually unknown in China. We were surprised to see one plot given over to graves rather than produce. Always interested in funerary arrangements (is this macabre?) Lynne questioned Joe closely. The rural dead, we learned, are first buried near their homes, then disinterred and the bones given a ceremonial reburial in boxes like those we had seen in Bat Trang the previous day.

Bone boxes, Bat Trang

We were looking at the final resting place of people’s bones, which was reassuring from the hygiene point of view as they were planted right in among the lettuces. With growing population pressure, Joe added, cremation is becoming increasingly popular.

Graves among the lettuces

The weather had warmed slightly since our arrival in Hanoi, the temperature having staggered up to twenty or so, but the sky remained resolutely grey. It was also worryingly misty. In Guilin, eighteen months earlier, we had viewed the karst mountains through a haze and now the same was threatened at Ha Long. Worse, if the mist thickened our cruise might be cancelled. The authorities, keen to protect their tourist trade, had cancelled sailings the previous week, preferring a few disappointed tourists to a possibly fatal collision between two cruise boats.

We need not have worried. We arrived at the busy cruise terminal and with commendable efficiency Joe found our boat’s guide who had already corralled the ten people who would be our companions for the next twenty four hours. In a very few minutes we were ferried out to our junk, the weather was declared acceptable, and we were underway.

The Huong Hai Junk is modelled on the old Vietnamese court junks, though they probably lacked the flush toilet and hot shower that graced our cabin. Like most Ha Long boats, it was equipped with sails, but they were unfurled only when the postcard photographers turned up.

On the Huong Hai Junk

Lunch started with chicken soup but quickly settled into a more appropriate seafood theme. Chopped prawns wrapped in rice paper was followed by battered squid with a chilli dip, whole grilled prawns and then a slab of fish in a gently spiced sauce. Watermelon and dragon fruit in sweetened yoghurt finished the meal. Everything was very fresh and beautifully cooked.

On the sun deck - though without the sun

Tom, an extrovert Australian suggested that subsequent meals should be taken at a single long table and our group of twelve (four Australians, four British, two Dutch and two Germans) with ages ranging from twenties to sixties, started to gel.

Cruising in Ha Long Bay

We cruised for an hour through the remarkable islands of Ha Long Bay. They were formed when a celestial dragon and her children, summoned by the Jade Emperor to defend his lands from an enemy fleet, halted the invaders by spitting out a vast quantity of pearls. After their victory the dragons decided to stay and the bay was named Ha Long (Dragon Descending). A duller, though probably more accurate, account of the formation of karst topography can be found here.

Cruising in Ha Long Bay

We stopped at Hung Sung Sot (Surprise Cave). A flotilla of junks disgorged their passengers onto the quay at a small island and we made our way up the many steps to the cave entrance amid a considerable crowd of tourists.

Boats arrive at Hung Sung Sot

The pressure eased once we were inside and we wandered through an impressive set of show caves.

Surprise Cave

Back on the junk, a few minutes sailing brought us to an island with a beach of white sand and a roped off swimming area. Unlike the cave we had this to ourselves; maybe the temperature had something to do with that. Five of us were foolish enough to swim. The water felt sharp but after a brisk crawl to the edge of the swimming area I considered having a float and admiring the scenery.

Halfway into the water

It was too cool so I thought a brisk crawl back to the beach and then out again might warm me up. That improved it, but I did not stay in for long.

A brisk crawl to the edge of the swimming area

The junk now headed for the overnight anchorage. Some took the boat, while others chose to make the trip by kayak. Lynne was scathing about my decision to paddle and prophesied a watery grave, but I ignored her. The five paddlers were almost the same five who had swum, the Vietnamese guide making the necessary sixth.

Preparing to paddle

I was partnered by Tom and as we settled into our seats I confessed that the last time I had been in a kayak was 1974. Lynne would not have been reassured to discover this made me the more experienced crew member. Undaunted, we set off and, for a while, even managed to look like a team. Being the two heaviest people on the junk, our kayak rode a little low in the water. This, I think, explains why we zigzagged across the bay; the other possible explanation - sheer incompetence - I would reject out of hand.

Teamwork and coordination - though not quite in the right direction

Twenty minutes later the junk passed us and disappeared into the distance. We had to navigate through the islands, and would never have seen the boat again if the guide had not been with us. A couple of kilometres across open water might have been a problem for novices had not the sea been as flat as glass, and after an hour of steady, if not quite straight, paddling we reached the sanctuary of the junk.

An hour later

After a shower I was more than ready for dinner. The nobility in a court junk would probably have been pleased with the seafood salad followed a small crab, several oysters, chicken with rice and vegetables and dragon fruit with chocolate cake. They may have had difficulty appreciating the bottle of white Bordeaux we drank with it, but that is their problem - we liked it.

After dinner the Australians amused the assembled company with a card trick involving an apparent display of mind reading. All were baffled. Later a spotlight was set up on the bow to attract squid and we dangled lures in the water, but caught nothing.

Next morning we rose early. It was brighter and promised to be a little warmer although there was still no sign of sunshine. Even without it the strange islands and improbably calm water made for an incredibly beautiful and peaceful morning.

Morning on Ha Long Bay

After a hearty breakfast we cruised between the islands, dropping in at a floating fish farm.

Floating fish farm
Ha Long Bay

In different sections we saw groupers, red snappers, clams, oysters and cuttlefish.

Cuttlefish in the floating fish farm
Ha Long Bay

As we continued our guide invited us to exercise our imaginations and see rocks shaped like dogs, swans and rabbits. He called one rocky protuberance ‘ thumb island’ though that was not the anatomical similarity that came to my mind, nor to some others judging by the laughter. Eventually we reached the ‘kissing rocks’ or ‘fighting cocks’ depending on your preference. This was a meeting point for cruise boats as the rocks are well known to all Vietnamese, being depicted on the back of the 200,000 Dong note (a lot of 0s but worth about £6).

Kissing Rocks
Ha Long Bay

We passed several floating villages and then brunch was served. The onion soup, stuffed pancakes, prawns with apple and mayonnaise and finally pork, rice and vegetables maintained the high standard. Our boat was, we had observed, one of the smallest cruising the bay. On a larger boat the standard of the food would have been much harder to maintain, and we would not have got to know all our fellow passengers, so we felt very pleased with our experience.

Floating Village
Ha Long Bay

By the time we had finished eating we were back at Ha Long. The Australians explained their card trick - it was not complicated, but cleverly allowed so many opportunities for misdirection it was not surprising that nobody twigged – and then a small boat ferried us back to the dock where Joe and our driver were waiting. We said goodbye to our companions, who went their separate ways, and set off on the long drive back to Hanoi.

We arrived late afternoon and checked back into our hotel for a couple of hours. Later Joe took us to the station for the overnight train north to Lao Cai and the next part of our journey.

Back to Part 2 :Hanoi

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