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.