I’ve spent a night on Halong Bay, on the coast of North Vietnam, twice. Both times, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience — (1) hauling butt up the many steps to visit Hang Sun Sot Cave (Cave of Surprises), full of rocky wonders that look like candy stuck to the ceiling and floor; (2) watching boats steer questionably close to neighboring bobbing vessels that are too numerous for purists seeking a genuine meditation on nature’s best offering; and (3) lazily watching the looming cliffs merge into the gathering orange twilight only to emerge again in ghostly blue and green morning mists that hesitantly reveal those neighbors again, lurking just off our bow and stern.
Actually, in 2018 the tourist exodus from port to glowering cliffs and rock monsters is more orderly and efficient than the noisy, chaotic clash of wooden ships (some with the traditional sail atop) that I witnessed 10 years earlier. Then, the floating hotels/motels were more traditional in style and behavior, with collisions along the shore a given, as boatmen pushed off nuzzling vessels competing for space with bare feet and shouted orders directed as much to the captains’ passengers on the offending crafts as to their own officers. (see below)
Today, fewer tourist-laden boats puttering through the straits are apparent; the accommodations have been upgraded and the vessels modernized (to me, a step in the wrong direction); their positions relative to each other seem more regulated; and embarkation/debarkation exercises at various points are strictly timed to avoid crashes that had been so common in the past.
The Gulf’s political baggage is of greater significance to Americans than its weather or natural landmarks. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, passed by the US Congress in August 1964, authorized President Lyndon Johnson to “take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression” by the communist government of North Vietnam. The Resolution effectively launched America’s full-scale involvement in the Vietnam War, based on vague allegations of an attack on two US naval vessels in the Gulf.
Two times of day......
Limestone grottos are common in northern Vietnam, and Surprise Cave, one of the most popular dungeons in Halong, offers a compact looping path among stalactites/stalagmites. The mass of humanity in the cave streams along -- steady and relatively orderly; the hike up the steep steps and incline tends not to discourage anyone. It’s a chance for the revelers on the sea to be landlubbers again for a short interlude before scrambling back down the cliff to their cocktails and deck chairs (in my case, a secluded balcony in the shade).
Artificial lights underground are one thrill, but the real miracle of Halong is the natural light patterns that change relentlessly as noon goes to night and night to morning and onward. Weather and time conspire in secret to present every visitor to the bay a show that never repeats itself (no two photographs will ever capture the same impression). Secure a kayak and explore close-up. Lighten up on the paddle, separate yourself from the other paddlers and smell the sea and rock garden.
Pearls and Shellfish Habitat (most photos from 2008):
The darling treasure in these waters is of course oysters and their occasional pearls. “Cleopatra dissolved a pearl in wine and drank it to prove here love to Marc Anthony.” She probably should have kept the gem instead. The oyster’s shiny iridescent wall interior too — the “mother of pearl” — often is destined for special ornamentation.
The chameleon-like cuttlefish and mollusks are harvested along Vietnam’s 2,000-mile coastline, from Halong Bay in the South China Sea round to the Gulf of Thailand. These are an important food product, often collected in nets and pens by inhabitants positioned along the shorelines and even living in floating residences at the edges of the Ha Long Bay corridors.
The small-time fishing is declining, as larger scale mass production takes over in the burgeoning Vietnamese economy model. But the occasional dory, rowed relentlessly by a solitary seller (usually a woman), pulls up along side the tourist cruisers in hopes of a quick sale. Besides sea products, these sea marketers offer snacks and trinkets until late in the nighttime hours and again even before the sun rises. It is slave-like labor that is obviously vital to the welfare of some of these people.
I tossed a 20,000 dong note (about $1) to the dory’s floor from about two stories above. The lady captain with imploring gaze lifts a candy bar tied to a long pole as she begins to drift out of reach on the choppy water. The transaction (with no way to return the change) eventually is completed, and this intrepid woman slowly rows across the bay looking for another sympathetic customer.
(to be continued)