This Halong Bay cruise day is the fifteenth post in a series of Vietnam experiences storied by Rochelle Porper, for the previous ones please read these.
- Greeting from the other side of the world – Porper story #1
- Days of Saigon streets and Mekong boat trip – Porper story #2
- Vietnam war confronting – Porper story #3
- A massage adventure in Saigon – Porper story #4
- First hit to highland Vietnam tour – Porper story #5
- Vietnam rain forest and hills of plantations – Porper story #6
- Kontum, tomb houses and tribal villages – Porper story #7
- On the way to hoi an ancient town – Porper story #8
- Hoian farming day – Porper story #9
- Another day in paradise – Porper story #10
- On the way to hue – Porper story #11
- Hello from Hue – Porper story #12
- Surprise in Phong Nha cave trip – Porper story #13
- Ninh Binh and Ho Chi Minh hometown – Proper story #14
Well, even the best laid plains don’t always work out. Last night, the government turned off the power, which is has done with some regularity since we have arrived, so no email. But no worries, the following is the Kmart 2 for 1 blue light special, telling the story of the last days of the trip.
Halong Bay cruise
I have to start with oh my oh my. What an amazing place. I highly suggest before reading any further that you Google Halong Bay and see where we were. It will be impossible to do it justice and you really should enjoy the visual.
So we get to Halong Bay and climb aboard a small boat that takes us to our overnight junk boat. The scene is out of a movie. There are junk boats everywhere – some meant for day trips and some for overnight stays like ours. Our boat is small – only 4 cabins but there are others that look like junk QE2s. The boat is made out of beautiful dark word and looks purposefully like an old ancient ship. As soon as we arrive, we are greeted with cool and moist hand towels and a glass of juice. This is a common practice in the better places we have stayed .Sometimes the hand towels smell like Armani and sometimes like hyacinth. Today they smell lemony.
It is lunchtime and as soon as the boat leaves the dock area, we sit down at a table with a white linen tablecloth and chairs covered in white linen as well. They start bringing out dish after dish and we can’t believe how much food there is. We have fresh steamed prawns and crabs and fish and pork and cucumbers and tomatoes and chicken with vegetables and rice and garlic Chinese cabbage (which is more like spinach) and fresh pineapple to end the feast. We are happily stuffed to the gills.
And lest you think we spend the rest of the day sitting on our butts watching the view, you would be wrong. However, let’s talk about that view. We climb to the top of the deck and look around us. This is a place of staggering beauty. There are hundreds of tall limestone cliffs – one after the other – marching down the sea. They are partially covered in vegetation but you can see the rock exposed as well. They look like mammoth hills ranging from a few hundred feet tall to 800 – 900 feet in height. Some are huge and some are smaller. And they just go on forever. The weather was absolutely perfect -this is good because we made Long promise to call ahead and order good weather. It is hot and the sky is clear. We have finally come to a place in Vietnam where we actually didn’t drop bombs (but it has been attacked by Genghis Khan, and I will tell you that story in a minute).
After awhile cruising in the Bay, we stop the boat, drop the anchor and jump into the water. Oh my. The water is clean and green and so salty that floating is easy and drowning would be impossible. We can’t believe how beautiful it is. Imagine swimming in such a place – surrounded by beautiful tall obelisks of stone, a blue sky and cool water. We swim for a long time before getting back to the boat, and wouldn’t you know it but out of nowhere, and I mean freaking nowhere; a woman has rowed up to us and is trying to sell American snacks. Her little boat is stuffed full of Ritz crackers and Oreos and Choco-pies and Sprite and Coke and Pringles and beer. It is hysterical. I must give the Vietnamese a lot of credit for their industriousness.
We climb in the boat and ride a bit further into the Bay and we start our adventures. We motor in a smaller boat up to a cave called Surprise Cave, which it is. We climb up some steps and end up in a cave much like the one we were in the other day (the river cave). This cave is smaller and dry, but no less magnificent. Room after room of magical looking sculptures of limestone, some lit up so that you could see how intricate they are. We are in awe of how beautiful it is and how we have gotten here. We are in the middle of a single limestone cliff surrounded by thousands that look identical. It’s a wonder anyone ever found it. We spend a lot of time here, just walking around and taking it all in. Luckily there are not many people so we have it mostly to ourselves.
After we leave the cave, we got to another cliff with a temple built at the very top. Here we will watch the sun set, and we have 80 minutes to climb up. Diane opts to stay at the beach below but the rest of start the climb. Luckily, there are stairs the entire way so even though it’s slow going and hot (a shocker), we all easily make it. I know I have talked about sunsets before on this trip but really, you will have to ignore those other superlative descriptions and suffer through another one. We are at the top of a cliff overlooking the bay and in our 360 view there must be hundreds of other cliffs. A completely cloudless sky is above us and absolutely nothing is obstructing the view as the huge yellow, then orange globe of the sun sinks behind the cliffs. It is one of the most magnificent things I have ever seen.
Then the sky turns pink and purple and red – all of it framed by the cliffs. Oh my oh my. We climb down after the sun has set and get back to our main boat and immediately jump into the water to cool off. Because the salinity of the water is so high, we literally float on our backs for an hour, watching the night sky unfold. Oh my. It was wonderful. Then Tasha, Long and I started jumping off of the top deck of the boat – about 20 or 30 feet from the water – which is black by now because it is almost completely dark. It is a total rush. We finally get called in for dinner and go in and get ready. Tasha dresses in a floor length dress for the event and Diane has on a nice skirt and blouse. She is carrying her purse with her, which kind of cracks me up because we are the only people on the boat and it isn’t like she is going to need anything. Even Sam has gussied up. Of course, I am wearing another recycled tee shirt.
This meal is not only delicious, but beautiful as well. We start with prawns so big that they are heavy to pick up. They are three times the size of any prawns I have ever seen. They come decorated with a bouquet of fresh vegetable flowers and I have to take a picture. Then we have French fries with cucumber decorations, and then they turn off the lights and come into the room with a flaming pineapple studded with spring rolls attached by toothpicks. Then they bring a fish that has a net made out of carrots draping over it and a plate of sautéed vegetables surrounded by hearts of carrots and a fence of cucumber and rice and beef with veggies surrounded by cuts out of carrot butterflies and pork on dish decorated with more veggie cutouts. It’s unbelievable.
Finally the fruit dish comes and the meal is over but then they bring out a tray of pearl necklaces and earrings and encourage us to buy (which we don’t). Never miss an opportunity to sell something when three or more tourists are sitting in one place must be the national motto. We bring out the rum (which we bought for a whopping $1.20) and start drinking and playing cards and a horse board game (don’t ask). Eventually, we go on deck to take in the night sky some more. The boat is gently rocking, the sea breeze is cool, the stars are magnificent and we can’t peel ourselves away. I could sit there forever. Finally, we drift off to bed.
In the morning we decide to skip breakfast and go kayaking instead. Off we go at 6:30 to explore. The sun hasn’t risen fully yet so it’s cool and we kayak around the rocks and it is wonderful. We eventually go over to a natural cave that cuts through the rock to the other side. Inside the cave, the water is dripping from the ceiling and it sounds like rain. When we come out into the other side of the cave, we are completely encircled by rock and it’s an incredible site. All you can see are soaring cliffs all around you. The sun is starting to peek out over the rock and it’s casting shadows on the opposite side of the rock circle. You can hear the birds chirping and the cicadas humming, but nothing else. The moon is still hanging in the sky and we just sit there.
Finally, the sun comes out in full and the heat hits us in the face. It’s time to kayak back to the boat for the ride back to shore. We have time for one more swim in the bay. We lay there floating for awhile, and I close my eyes because it’s so peaceful. For some reason, the water crackles and it makes a popping noise when you are floating. It is very soothing. I eventually open my eyes and see what looks like a hawk circling the cliff in front of me. Oh my. We climb back on the boat, pack our stuff, shower and eat our last meal. This one also goes on forever -more fries and prawns, stuffed crab, sautéed fish, Chinese cabbage, ham and eggs, rice, scallops and onions and fruit. Oy vey. We all agree that Halong Bay has been the highlight of the trip – among the other thousand highlights. We can barely pry ourselves off the boat when we finally arrive.
So let me tell you about Genghis Khan because it’s another lesson in how Vietnamese ingenuity beats brute force every time. Genghis tried to invade Vietnam on three different occasions – coming from China through Halong Bay during the 1200s. The first time, the villagers saw them coming and burned everything they owned and escaped to the forest with their animals and food. The only thing they left behind was meat that was diseased. The warriors, hungry from their trip, ate the meat and got sick. They had to return to China for more supplies and to get healthy. The second time they tried a few years later, the villages used their knowledge of the Bay to prepare. The tide rises and falls very quickly there, so they waited until low tide and placed hundreds of thick spikes topped with metal on the floor of the bay (there is a cave that exists where there is still a stash of these spikes). When the ships came again, the villagers kept fighting them in the bay until they knew the tide was going out. They were in smaller boats and raced away and the larger war ships got punctured as the water receded and they hit the spikes. The Chinese all panicked and most killed themselves by jumping into the water. The Vietnamese provided the survivors with boats and food to go back home in hopes that they would appreciate this gesture and leave them alone. Not to be outdone, Genghis tried one last time. A few years later, he came with 1.5 million people – and hundreds of boats loaded with food and medicine and hundreds of others just for fighting. The villagers had very small and fast boats, and the army was determined to wipe them out and they fought viciously. As they are chasing the villager’s boats, who purposefully lead them farther and farther away from the supply ships, they end up leaving all the women, children, food and medicine unprotected. The villagers who had stayed behind burn all of the food and medicine but don’t kill the people so they will be alive to tell the warriors there are no supplies left when they come back from the hunt. There is no choice but to high tail it back to China as fast as possible. I love this story, and it’s the same theme we have heard over and over again about the power of being clever and using local knowledge to overcome the enemy.