Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Halong Way From Home

A "mere" four hours drive west of Hanoi takes us to Halong Bay where the South China Sea is dotted with almost two thousand steeply banked rocky islands and cliffs. We were here to spend a night on a boat out in the bay and to cruise around some of the stunning scenery of (yet another) UNESCO World Heritage Site. The harbour area is a bit of a worry.  It's a not particularly attractive mish mash of high-rise buildings, tourist buses and the noise and smells of a place whose purpose is to handle the large number of boats moored here. We're taken onto a little motorboat with 5 other passengers and given life jackets to wear as we head out to our boat "Prince IV" (which sounds to me like the project management methodology that you turn to when 1, 2 and 3 have failed*, or an album by the purple-pantalooned pop pixie - maybe it's just me, but I can't stop humming "When Doves Cry" for the rest of the trip).

Anyway, we set sail on Prince IV, I'm humming away happily, and as we leave the noise of the harbour behind, the view improves dramatically. We bob along through little bays and channels which cut through spectacular pillars of rock and craggy outcrops piercing the sea. Trees and vegetation cling to the walls, tropical rain forests grow on top and sea eagles circle and swoop for fish.

Some bits look like excellent hiding places for Bond villains, unsurprising really as both The Man With The Golden Gun and Tomorrow Never Dies feature scenes shot here. It's  good to hear that after navigating a few more rocks we are going to drop anchor and visit a cave on the next island and then go swimming and kayaking, so I'll be able to pretend I'm Bond. The cave we go to has stalagmites and stalactites which are formed, our guide informed us, by water dripping through the quacks in the cave ceiling. There were a lot of quacks and we did very well not to laugh every time he pointed out another quack. To be fair my pronunciation of the two Vietnamese words I've learned probably had him in stitches too.

After the cave with all the "quacks" we took a kayak around one of the big rocky outcrops and then bravely went for a swim in the freezing sea. Later we sailed off to another bay to watch the sunset (though the sun disappears behind a particularly big group of cliffs long before sunset time, in future the captain may wish to bear that in mind as I can't believe these rocks move and I'm pretty sure he knows where the sun is going to be).

Then we sat down to eat. We're accompanied on our boat by three French people who, quite understandably, speak French, mainly to each other and a bloke who retired from the US Navy and now lives in the Philippines with his very quiet Filipino girlfriend and regularly travels round Vietnam, visiting places for the first time since he was stationed there in the war. All perfectly nice people but without much in common and as a result the boat is a bit quiet. I feel sorry for the local tour guide who would have liked to have a big party after dinner with singing and dancing. Instead he found himself on the quietest trip he's done for years and after allowing him to indulge us with a few card tricks we all make our excuses at around 9pm and retire to our respective sleeping quarters.

When we wake the boat is already moving on through some more spectacular scenery on its way to one of the floating villages that have been constructed by fishing communities out here. The people who live in these villages spend their whole lives floating on the sea, the children attend a small school and the adults catch fish mend boats and nets and are do other fishermen stuff. We are transported around the village in little round bamboo coracles rowed by ladies in long gowns, conical hats and, inexplicably, the same kind of face masks we've seen everyone wearing when riding scooters round the cities. There's certainly no issue with dust or traffic pollution out here in Ha Long Bay, so what are they playing at? Well it turns out that the masks do have some dust and fume prevention role, but possibly the main reason they're worn both in the city and here is to protect the wearer from the sun. There is the attitude that very fair skin is more beautiful and the ladies in particular go to great lengths to cover themselves up. Very sensible in many ways what with all that dangerous UV stuff bombarding you, but it's very disconcerting when you see someone tearing towards you on a scooter and they're wearing a pack-a-mack with the hood up, sunglasses and a face mask - it always makes me think they're wearing a biohazard suit and that we're walking towards whatever it is that they're running away from.

After the village tour we returned to the boat for lunch (the food on board has been surprisingly good) and then it's back to the harbour, back on a minibus and the (Ha)long journey back to Hanoi.

* Don't get me started on a rant about project management methodologies, unless you've a few hours and a pair of earplugs to spare.

1 comment:

  1. Any chance you could project manage getting a round in?
    We're dying of thirst, here - and Mike's not going to budge!