Friday, 5 April 2013

... Indochina: So Comes Snow After Fire...

".... and even dragons have their endings" - J. R. R. Tolkien

Legend says that a great Mountain Dragon created the islands of Halong Bay by gouging out valleys and crevasses with its tail before plunging into the sea, where these areas filled with the water so that only pockets of land were visible. With over 3000 limestone islands arising from the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin , this has been a World Heritage Site since 1994. The name in Vietnamese means "Descending dragon bay".

It was a 4hr drive at 830am this morning from Hanoi that brought me to Halong City. The drive was interesting, rush hour in Hanoi is... let's just say "an experience". I felt like I was in a F1 race pretty much the entire way and the potholes or speed bumps we kept hitting on an otherwise comfortable bus sent shock waves through my spine.

"Deep breaths, close your eyes and pray"

The cruise I was set to take around the Bay was to include sleeping overnight on the boat, in my own private room no less. I was pretty excited. Then we got the news: the local government had grounded all overnights tonight as there is apparently a monsoon on the way. To say I was disappointed is an understatement! Plus this meant no onboard karaoke!?! Gutted. It would also mean a night in Halong City, which had earned merely a one page column in my Lonely Planet. Doesn't really say much.

I think I may have been a tad naïve in what I was expecting upon arrival: a couple of junks, quaint little port... You know the kind of thing. Yeah no. I felt like I was about to embark on a Caribbean cruise with a bunch of blue rinse old girls and men that like to play Bridge. I was herded onto a small motorboat and began to wonder if this was my transportation for the day. Thankfully it was merely a way to get to the vessel.

Looking nothing like the junk in Man With The Golden Gun, all daydreams of white linen suited men and a munchkin minion with a French accent were blown out of the water. The boat, like all the others in the dock, was a dirty white instead and I temporarily had visions in setting up an incredibly lucrative business in white marine paint. However once on board I was presently surprised. Decked out with chairs and tables that looked like something from a wedding reception and sun loungers on the top deck, this was a bit posh.

The cabins were also very nice looking, such a shame I was no longer going to be sleeping in one. The lunch that was served more than made up for it - it was excellent, very tasty and a good variety of vegetarian & fish dishes. I didn't eat much but I was stuffed with what I did manage.

The views of the area were magical and majestic. Words cannot begin to describe it. We were taken to Dau Go Island so that we could explore Thien Cung grotto (Heavenly Cave). This enormous cave was impressive with its high ceiling, many stalactites and rock formations.

I would have preferred a less Vegas feel perhaps with more natural light as opposed to the various neons they've rigged up inside but this was still a worthwhile visit. If for nothing else then the sheer entertainment of my Vietnamese guide excitedly pointing out all the phallic pieces - this included the usual male appendage and the boob complete with nipple, which could have so easily been described as a cupcake but let's admit it, who would've been listening?

Meandering slowly through various islets for about 4.5 - 5 hrs in total was simply something else. The waters were so calm that the reflections of the Islands added to the breathtaking beauty. What was that about some impending monsoon???

The weather was hot despite the ever present haze that has followed me since I left Bangkok. Floating villages exist in amongst the Islands too, a nice reminder that when all is said and done this part of the world is still someone's home.

May be that will help reinforce the need to clean up after yourself and not dump your litter overboard. Sadly there was a fair amount of litter in places as part of this experience.

After a day being amongst such a natural wonder, it seems somewhat of a travesty to be cooped up in a hotel room with a karaoke bar across the road seemingly as the only source of entertainment. Not to mention the cockroach I caught and flushed down my toilet in my room or the windows that won't close rendering my air-con as pointless and providing the mosquitoes with a free meal ticket - me

It's going to be a long night.... and not due to any weather conditions.

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