March 19, 2013

Ha Long Bay

Several hours east of Hanoi lies Vietnam's most spectacular sight - Ha Long Bay. Thousands of jagged isles spring out of the Gulf of Tonkin, reminiscent of the karst formations I encountered in Guilin but on a much larger scale. A hundred vessel strong fleet of wooden ships ply the waters in the bay, carrying the tourists who make this one of Vietnam's most visited attractions.

As the legend goes, when Vietnam was threatened by invaders the gods sent forth a family of dragons to protect the nation from the foreign armada. The dragons cleared their throat emphatically, spitting out some jewels which turned into the limestone rocks that we see today. The invasion force promptly ran into the newly formed defensive shield and sunk deep into the depths, never to be seen again. The dragons descended into the bay after their work was finished and retired in the area, giving Ha Long Bay its name.

The waters of Ha Long Bay are a healthy shade of turquoise. I enjoy the view from the bow of the ship as we approach a dense cluster of islands. Lunch is provided on board the vessel, and then it docks beside an extremely large and awe-inspiring cave complex. Sung Sot Cave is a geological wonder, full of surprises and stalactites.

Some ships have been constructed to resemble ancient junks, their distinctive battened sails standing tall. In secluded coves that could function as secret hideaways of pirates from days gone by, a few vessels drop anchor. Kayaks are provided for visitors interested in exploring the shoreline of some islets in more detail.

While most of the tourists wander off on their kayaks, I am surrounded by a trio of Vietnamese ladies. Blessed with good taste, they seize the opportunity for an impromptu photo shoot as soon as they get a moment alone with me. They invite me for dinner the following night, but I must politely decline due to my packed travel schedule. I will be en route to Luang Prabang in Laos by then.