Halong Bay, Vietname, the scorching sun is finally relenting and very slowly setting behind the impossibly preternatural Karst mountains few hundred metres from where the boat has anchored for the night. I am wadding in the emerald water with uncertain depth and dubious quality after jumping from the top deck of the junk boat, while my boat mates are scrambling up for another go, I settle down to enjoy the coolness the water offer and drink in the view of the mesmerising picture before my eyes.
As the daylight slowly fades, lights on all the junk boats anchored in the protected bay burn brighter and brighter. The karst mountains turn from inanimate limestone pillars into shadowy guardians. The current feels stronger now as the fatigue of the day sets in, so reluctantly I climb back up to the boat just as a small sampan come next to us. “Coke, beer, banana”, the mother and daughter call over and over again. After trying unsuccessfully to part us with our dollar, they move on to the next boat, then the next one. The whine of their motor breaks the surreal atmosphere of the darken bay as they are engulfed by the darkness.
Legend has it that the limestone karst were created when a huge dragon crash landed here. Halong Bay in Chinese means the Bay of Descending Dragon. And in this semi darkness, it isn’t hard to imagine these giants as the descendants of the ancient creature.
After a simple dinner I find myself sitting in the top deck chatting with 3 young Malaysians (need to polish my rusty Malay). There is also a group of English-speaking youngsters from different countries smoking weed that is being passed around to facilitate the social interaction. I slip away to enjoy some peace and quiet while staring at the night sky twinkling with stars. Sleep comes easily, aid by the gentle rocking of the boat.
This unforgettable day was set in motion 2 days ago in Hanoi. To my dismay, I found out that the cheapest way to see Halong Bay is with organised tour (that seems to be true with everything in Vietnam). So I went combing the streets of the old quarter for a cheap package. Everybody had told me that you pay for what you get, more expensive = better food and services. I found a 3-day-2-night tour for 60 USD (transportation+food included, but NOT drinks). This morning, a van picked me up from my hostel at 7am. After about 1 hour going around picking other people, we were finally on the way. The journey from Hanoi to Ha Long City takes about 2.5 hours. After making friends with the people in the van, I was disappointed to find out that a few of us would be put with another group (This ungroup and regroup would haunt me for the rest of the tour). After the chaos at the port, I was relieved we were finally boarding. Lunch was served and conversations flew easily.
We were soon greeted by the spectacular seascape of limestone karst. The armada of junk boats approached the first stop – limestone caves. The place was soon turned into a circus as boatload upon boatload of tourist pour into the caves. There is no way to avoid them unless you charter your own junk boat and plan your own itinerary. But once we were back in our boats, the crowd was dispersed as each boat usually takes different route, not dissimilar to playing hide-and-seek among these giant karst. I sat mesmerised at the bow of the boat by the passing and approaching limestone pillars, the only way I could break the spell was by scanning the sky for eagles and the water for fishermen. As the afternoon began to wane we soon reached Cat Ba island, there was another exchange of people, we offloaded half the boat and took on some.
Second day. Breakfast is served as the sun peeks from behind one of these limestone giants. I have given up trying to understand how they make it all work as another group change takes place as we disembark on Cat Ba island, the largest of the 2000 islands and islets nestle on the bay. If it’s not for tourism Cat Ba town would only be a sleepy fishing town. But instead of fishing boats bobbing in the water, there are restaurants, souvenir shops and mini markets competing for your dollar. I opt to spend the afternoon at the beach with a new friend. Ice-creams and an easy conversation make the 15-minute walk seems like a dash to the corner store. The beach is packed; pale-skin foreigners, Asians with exaggerated sun hats, families enjoying some picnics, noisy children chasing each other, teenagers monkeying around. The cooling water and the latest paperback vie for my attention. Night comes quickly on the island, I sit at the beach front near a group of young backpackers nursing their beers while exchange travel stories, before my eyes I see tour groups hunting for dinner, tourists bargaining for souvenirs, families strolling and eating, it seems that the whole population of tourists and locals have congregated here. I find it hard to ply myself away from this lively atmosphere to rest my weary body.
Leaving Halong Bay is harder than I expected. Standing on the top deck of the junk boat watching as the imposing karst come up one after another to say goodbye, I wish I had more time to explore this surreal seascape and the people who live in it. But the problem with seeing Halong Bay with a tour group is that you get the same experience as everyone else. However you want to see it, the Halong Bay will stunt you visually. The only advice I’ll give is to bring extra batteries for your camera.