The distinguishable, red flag of Vietnam fluttered with the breeze on our traditional sailing boat. We were waiting, part of a large fleet on a major expedition to find new lands. A whistle in the distance was blown, then we were off. As our boat slowly sailed towards hundreds of rock formations, I was living a “Pirates of the Caribbean” tale, cruising through mythical lands where foreboding creatures lurked around us. Thousands of limestone pilasters rose out of the emerald green waters like guardsmen, high above us. I was at Halong Bay, Vietnam’s most precious jewel, well deserving of its UNESCO World Heritage status. ‘This is Mother Nature’s sculptural collection of priceless art’; a geologists textbook example of earth’s transformation over 500 million years when tectonic forces slowly thrust the limestone above the water-line.
The Vietnamese have given Halong Bay its own tale, far more romantic and captivating. Affectionately called ‘Descending Dragon Bay’ in Vietnamese, legend tells the story of a Jade Emperor who called upon a fleet of powerful dragons to support the people’s resistance against a band of invaders. They spat out a heavy shower of gems, which upon impact with the ocean, created thousands of rocky mountains. Providing a solid defence in these waters, the enemies’ boats were sunk, and branded heroes, the dragons were allowed to stay where their tails now collectively form the famous Long Vi beach.
Science or myth, Halong Bay is undeniably ethereal. Despite the put-putting of the motor, the silence was strangely deafening as we sailed past each towering pinnacle. Their scale and mass made me feel small and insignificant. Each one had its own face, its own identity; angular and sharp, wide, robust and rounded, some with a head of green foliage that further personified each karst as a guard to this treasured seascape. I imagined their words of warning as we coasted past each one into the heart of the treasure“Dare to enter, and soon you will feel our wrath!” they whispered to me as I stood at the helm. But they let us through undisturbed; false threats diluted away by the thousands of tourists that charter these waters.
We reached the famous floating village of Cua Van, in a cluster of karsts. These villages have been home to generations of fishing folk who earn their living from the bay’s bountiful supply of marine life and growing tourism. Some villagers are even said to have never stepped foot on land… Indeed, a baby’s first ‘paddle’ is more appropriate than a baby’s first ‘step’. Houses were set atop of barges with corrugated rooftops to protect its inhabitants against the unpredictable weather conditions. There was no pavement, no sanitation, no creature comforts. The only modern intervention was electricity, operated by a generator.
We jumped in to a row of boats to explore the village from a closer perspective. A lady was at the helm .As seems to be the case in Vietnam, it was the women who put in the hard graft. The menfolk swung lazily in their hammocks on small verandas, cigarettes dangling from their mouths as they played cards with their male counterparts. She steered the boat towards the mouth of limestone karst; a gaping hole beneath a mammoth mound of rock that seemed to defy gravity. And then we emerged into an open chamber with soaring faces of limestone rising all around us. I felt like Blackbeard in his Queen Anne’s Revenge discovering and pilfering precious jewels. Adventurous tourists were adrift on kayaks while others snapped away with expensive cameras that exemplified the huge chasm of rich versus the poor of the fishing folk. Our lady smiled humbly at us, offered to take our picture and like a pro operated the Panasonic’s, the Canons and Pentax’s with surprising familiarity and ease.
Separated from the 2-night tourists, the day-trippers boarded back on to our boat for a hearty banquet of the local produce. Halong Bay is also one of the most famous destinations for seafood. Dining tables were covered edge to edge with platefuls of juicy prawns, morning glory, grilled monkfish with stewed tomatoes, fresh crab and ample of the Vietnamese staple, rice. We tucked in, lingering in this lavish moment like we were rich brigands.
Continuing the pretence, we were heading to our last and final stop of the day to seek out treasure… This time going beyond the limestone pinnacles to explore Halong Bay’s grottoes, reachable via hundreds of steps. These grottoes, affectionately named ‘Surprise Cave’ have been visited since the French discovered them more than 100 years ago. They cover some 10,000 m2 and are 30 metres high, so immense it can take thousands of people at a time. I walked nervously beneath thousands of stalactites and stalagmites along a 500-meter paved passage and eventually into a large chamber the size of the Royal Albert Hall. The ceiling was decorated with stalactites like chandeliers, all illuminated with colour changing LED lights. The floor presented elaborate shapes of elephant, horse and flowers – all with legendary tales. It was an incredible feat of nature. Despite the jostling crowd of tourists that came and went, it was strangely quiet. Perhaps we were all worried that the slightest murmur would send a knife-edged stalagmite to come crashing down from the heavens.
There were no real riches but the treasure was the scenery – I was at the highest peak overlooking Halong Bay now… Sunset was approaching. The sky was tinged with a watercolour wash of blush pink… Thousands of limestone karsts were dotted before me, each one darkening as the sun made her way down towards the shoreline in the distance…
The sea chantey “Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Pirate’s Life for Me” echoed through my head as we sailed back to shore. Anna the Buccaneer had come away empty handed but she was content and full…