Cruising the Mysterious Waters of Ha Long Bay Part 15

 16:33:09.6530000 | 12.7.2010
I was excited to see some e-mails from home, including one from Margaret who is taking care of my two little scruffy dogs. Much to my utter shock, Margaret was writing to tell me that Spike, my little spoiled rotten, mutt of a poodle, had died in his sleep. I was beside myself with horror. Thankfully I managed to get a call into Margaret - it was 4 in the afternoon on Saturday back home. No words of comfort could console me. The vet figured that Spike had some undetected heart condition and had probably had a heart attack. The little bugger was only about 8 so this was the last thing I'd ever expected to hear. Anyway, it's put a real damper on the rest of the trip as you can imagine. Margaret was upset that she had to tell me but was, of course, concerned as to what "arrangements" to make in my absence - this isn't exactly the kind of thing you think to leave instructions for - but after thinking it over and e-mailing the last day and a half, Margaret & my friend/carpenter Jamie are going to bury him in the backyard for me before I get back. I hate to not be able to say good-bye to the poor little bugger but the thought of one last pet and kiss on the head of a dog that's been dead for a week is a bit much even for me!

So off to HaLong Bay. The little bus arrived and we made the obligatory tour around the back roads of the Old Quarter of Hanoi, picking up the rest of our travel mates - two smiling, happy young girls (Michelle and Le Sean) from Malaysia, a young American guy by the name of Zandy who's traveling SE Asia for a couple of months before heading off to Wharton School for his MBA this fall, a middle-aged couple Wayne & Ella from Dunedin, New Zealand, owners of a small landscaping construction company along with Paul an older (yeah, older, like about my age) co-worker/friend, an a 40ish couple Malaysian couple - Sim, an architect, and his wife Chun - from Kuala Lumpoor. (sorry, KL, forgetting how to spell). And there lastly there were 3 young musicians from Denmark - Kevin, Andre and Simon - who it turned out had played the Hue Festival with their 21 piece big-band. Once we got on board there were a bunch of young kids in their 20s but they mostly kept to themselves.

The road to Ha Long Bay starts out of Hanoi as a big motorway but quickly fades to a two lane highway amidst emerald green rice paddies with a lot of housing. Before long it fades to an endless sea of green with villages, which continue to bisect the landscape intermittently all the way to Ha Long Bay. The housing still fascinates us. It took countless pictures of these very tall, 3-4 story stucco structures, all brightly painted, with balconies and very shiny elaborate stainless steel railings, gates and gardens high in the sky. The houses are all very narrow frontage. I'd read somewhere that buildings are taxed on the width of their frontage so consequently the buildings are built narrow but very, very deep. Properties stay in families for generations, often being sub-divided to the children when possible. It's interesting to see, too, how over the passage of time, some families have rebuilt these elegant homes, abutting their old tired neighbors constructed of common brick or wood, with corrugated iron roofs.

I can't tell you how many photos we've both taken - endless amounts it seems. It's a photographer's paradise and everywhere you turn there a kodak moments to be had. I actually videotaped some of the ride because it was so fascinating to me to see these little villages flanking each side of the road, the ubiquitous motorbikes parked outside, the brightly painted houses, next to all sorts of businesses their front doors wide open onto the streets, with goods for sale, next to cafes with little plastic chairs seemingly fit for a child they're so small. The water buffaloes and conical hats of the rice paddy workers bobbing up & down in the fields. And everywhere some kind of construction going on. As we got closer to Ha Long Bay, the construction increased and just like Danang, it's obvious that the tourism explosion with soon take over the landscape same as it's taken over the economy. It's a bit sad, really, to see how hotels and resorts are taking over the Vietnamese quiet and simple way of life with mushrooming Miami-like golf courses and resorts being built.

The waterfront of Ha Long Bay was teeming with little boats filled with tourists bobbing up and down along the wharves. Hundreds of tourists getting loading & unloading for their day trips and overnights. The immediate area of the bay was filled with small beautiful wooden boats in the Chinese junk style boasting fan shaped sails the color of cinnamon. It didn't take long for us to reach our destination - Oriental Sails - one of the nicest ships in the harbor and before we knew it, the 20 or so passengers and our luggage were aboard and ready to sail.

They greeted us with cold wet washcloths and icy cold drinks of some tropical fruit juice in the air-conditioned dining room before giving us our keys. The rooms are tiny, not much bigger than the queen sized bed that occupies the center, but its fitted out with carved wooden inlay in the walls, wooden paneled walls and ceilings. We had two windows looking out to sea and a tiny bathroom that you couldn't turn around fast in. But it had a shower - even tho there was no shower stall, just the handheld shower head hanging on the wall - adequate, given the size of the boat. Our cabin was on the main floor of this 3 level ship, and shared the deck with the dining area and captains office. the lower level was given over to the majority of cabins, with the back half dedicated to staff, kitchen and operations. And the upper deck had an area for lounging in the sun and a covered cushioned seating area for those of us to preferred to stay cool.

Countless oriental junks ply the waters of mysterious Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay is indescribable. It's not particularly large but contains 1969 small, mostly all uninhabited islands of craggy rock covered in lush green vegetation. the islands rise up from the sea in towering rounded mounds. Almost no where can you see beaches, only rocky cliffs jutting straight up. It's eerily beautiful, unlike anything I've seen anywhere else in the world. The base of many of these islands are slowly being eroded away by the calm placid flat waters of the bay, which are most easily viewed at low tide when the water levels drops a dozen feet or more.

Lunch was ready almost immediately and it was without a doubt the best food we'd eaten since arriving in Vietnam. Dish after dish kept coming to the table and even Kelly - whose palate can be a little finicky at times - ate everything on her plate. The meals turned out to be one of the most pleasant surprises of the trip. The food was creatively prepared and presented and best of all plentiful!

Before long we had arrived at our destination - a huge set of caves which had been carved from the rock many many years ago. My enthusiasm waned a bit when I saw the endless stairs rising up the side of the mountain but I figured - what the hell, I can do this, forgetting, of course, that in spite of the beauty surrounding me, it was still 110 degrees or more. With each step the beads of sweat increased til finally we were all drenched to the point of wringing out our clothes but when we finally reached the top the cave presented us with some cooling natural air conditioning. Or at least it seemed so initially. But the while the caves were dark and cooler than the outside air, they were also dank and damp and still very hot and close. At one point the passageway narrowed down so you could just barely fit thru and I wasn't sure kelly (who suffers from claustrophobia) would make it thru. But she closed her eyes and I dragged her onward! Before long we reached the expansive cave and marveled at the stalagmites and stalactites that had taken millions of years to form. Our guide regaled us with all the history of this unique and fascinating place, even if our understanding suffered some from his translation and pronunciation.

Caves in Halong Bay

Back on board the skiff we headed for a little floating village to gather up some kayaks and oars before returning to the ship so we could change into our swimsuits.

We had an hour or more of kayaking, passing under an expansive rock tunnel, perhaps 100 feet wide but with a ceiling so low you could almost reach up and touch the roof. We paddled a hundred yards or so before coming into an inner lagoon not visible from the exterior of the island. It was calm and green, the straight walls of the cliffs covered in vegetation and flowers growing thru the rocks.

After returning to the ship we had time to shower, change and imbibe a few gin & tonics before watching the setting sun behind the mountainous islands, the horizon not visible in any direction. After another wonderful meal - and several more gin & tonics - I retired early, contented if not still sad over the morning's news about Spike.

To be continued...