By Haley and Mark LaMonica
January 28, 2009
Having spent three nights amid the chaos of Hanoi, we were looking forward to some relaxation on the peaceful waters of Halong Bay. After a quick breakfast with Ben, our travel companion and friend from college, we met our guide Cuong who would be escorting us on our roughly three and a half hour journey east to the coast. While we had spent the past three days dodging Hanoi’s notorious traffic on foot, we gained a new appreciation of the “anything goes” approach of Vietnam’s roadways as our van inched its way out of the city. Crossing the Red River we left Hanoi behind, yet even as our view changed to rice paddies, we could not escape the constant honking from all manner of vehicles.
Having survived the drive, we found Halong Bay Harbor to be as congested and frenzied as the streets. Snaking our way through the throngs of tourists, we tried to keep pace with the porter who had whisked away our luggage. We boarded our launch at the base of a steep cement staircase. Pushing off from the sea wall, we motored among the multitude of boats guessing which junk would be our home for the next three days. Arriving at the Bai Tho 38 we dropped our bags in our respective cabins and made our way to the dinning room to meet out senior guide, coincidently also named Cuong, and the rest of the staff. Although the boat was designed to sleep eight guests we discovered that we would be the only three on this trip accompanied by the nine staff. As the crew pulled up anchor, we settled in for our first of what would become six strikingly similar, primarily seafood meals. Whether lunch or dinner, course after course emerged from a small open air galley tucked beneath an overhang in the stern of the boat. Our waitress smiled proudly as she lay before us heaping piles of steamed clams and whole head-on prawns that she helped us to remove from their shells. We squeezed kaffir limes into a mixture of salt and chili peppers to create a quick dipping sauce for the simply prepared shellfish. One lunch we were treated to whole steamed crabs whose orange and pink shells reappeared at dinner as the serving dishes for crab cakes. A loud crackling sound signaled the arrival of the main course of one of our dinners as a whole, wok-fried white fish was presented sizzling under a pile of chilies and greens. Every meal included a plain starch, various vegetables, and, for reasons we were yet to discover, some form of squid. While the food may have varied in palatability, the dining room was never lacking in spectacular scenery which, after all, was one reason for our trip.
Halong Bay is made up of approximately 2000 limestone islands covered in thick vegetation. Many of these islands have internal lagoons that are only accessible through narrow caves that have been formed as the limestone has eroded. While the main purpose of our trip was to explore these caves by kayak, we also had plenty of time to relax and soak in the sights of Halong Bay from our junk. The natural beauty of the islands was interspersed with small, floating fishing villages. Dogs and children leapt between loosely bound rafts supporting small one room huts. Nets hung to dry along the rigging of the fishing boats waiting to make their nightly journey to the open ocean of the Gulf of Tonkin. Older women in the traditional Vietnamese conical hats would row to our boat selling a wide array of items ranging from eggs to Pringles. While tempted by a taste from home, we motored past leaving them to wait for the next tourist boat. We sunbathed on deck looking forward to the 2-story plunge off the roof of the boat into the refreshing green water of the bay when we reached our next mooring. The salty water was a welcome refuge from the hot breezes and the unrelenting sun beating down from the cloudless, bright blue sky.
After washing off the salt and suntan lotion, we reconvened nightly on deck for Halida beers and Fun Snack Mix, a salty combination of pretzels, puffed rice, and wasabi peas. After dinner, we relived old college stories and listened to the raucous and multi-lingual karaoke from the larger neighboring boats that appeared to house as many as 30 guests. Later we joined the crew at the stern for their nightly squid fishing. Plankton are drawn to a spotlight that is shown into the water and are soon followed by hungry squid. Lowering the line into the water, the fishing stick was jerked upwards with the hope of spearing an unlucky squid on the hook. Despite our enthusiastic efforts, we soon realized we were better suited to drinking Halidas than trying to catch tomorrow’s lunch. Thankfully the crew faired better, with one staff member catching three squid in quick succession.
As entertaining as the antics aboard the boat were, each day we were eager to set off in our kayaks. On our first outing, after having acclimated to our vessels, we paddled our tiny fleet of kayaks in a relatively direct route towards the mouth of the cave. While our inability to travel in a straight line was a mere inconvenience on the open water, it presented more of a challenge in the cave as we quickly found ourselves pingponging off the walls as bats silently swooped over our heads. Although sometimes difficult to navigate and at times unnerving, by our third or fourth cave we had settled on an effective technique. The trick was to have the paddler in the stern while the person in the bow was responsible for illuminating our course by flashlight.
Tiny fingers of sunlight broke through the darkness signaling the end of the journey through each cave. Emerging into the warmth of the Vietnamese summer, we welcomed the greens and blues of the lagoons. The smallest was roughly equivalent to an Olympic size swimming pool while the more sizeable lagoons resembled large lakes. Regardless of the dimensions, each was encircled by steep limestone walls, the trees on which we were told were the homes to a few lucky monkeys. While we never spotted a monkey, on one occasion, we found ourselves paddling through a large school of jellyfish. Learning that they were not poisonous, we reached in to the water to touch the slimy but surprisingly firm creatures. In another lagoon, we passed around a live sea urchin, feeling the points of the small spikes move across the palms of our hands. While the beauty of the lagoons was certainly impressive, more remarkable was the utter silence and seeming isolation of these sanctuaries.
It may have been exactly this tranquility that distracted the two Cuongs from the rising tide on our final cave expedition. Despite the exceedingly narrow entry which had required us to lay flat and guide our kayaks by pushing off the slimy roof of the cave with our hands, we somehow failed to recognize the effect that a few more inches of water would have on our exit. Upon reentering the cave, we quickly realized that even while lying completely flat, this was going to be a tight squeeze. The small spotlights from our headlamps revealed the jagged ceiling just inches from our faces. As the bow of the kayak scraped against the cave’s roof, we recognized that in order to proceed we needed to submerge the boat with our hands rather than simply propelling it forward. After approximately 20-yards, we reached a wider opening where we could again sit up and ready ourselves briefly for the next leg of the trip. The more senior Cuong set off first to try to navigate the next low hanging section of the cave. Watching as he disappeared into the darkness, we listened to his struggles and began to wonder whether we would be better off backtracking and waiting for the next low tide. As we were mustering up our courage, our thoughts were punctuated by a splash ahead. Cuong had gotten out of his kayak and was calling for us to move forward. In light of the darkness, the bats, and the unknown, we were not reassured by the prospect of having to swim to the other side. As it turned out, this was not what Cuong had in mind either. Gaining leverage by placing his feet on the ceiling, Cuong grabbed the front of our kayak and yanked us through. While we were not yet out of the cave, the remaining 50-yards were comparatively easy.
As are eyes readjusted to the bright sunlight, we laughed nervously and recounted what had just happened. Despite the harrowing nature of our final outing, we were sad that our adventure was coming to an end. Unlike larger tourist vessels, our relatively small boat allowed us to gain a greater appreciation for the beauty and serenity of the bay by avoiding heavier trafficked destinations. Those visitors who confined themselves to short kayak jaunts encircling their boats had no idea about the beauty that lay within the island lagoons and the adventure involved in getting there. As we once again found ourselves playing a game of chicken with trucks on the return to Hanoi, we knew the relaxing portion of our journey was over. We also knew this would not be our last trip to Halong Bay as we look forward to continuing our explorations of its 2000 islands. Who knows what adventures we will find?
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