Thursday, June 15, 2006

Where the dragons descend into the sea...

Local legend says that long ago when the Vietnamese were fighting Chinese invaders, the gods sent a family of dragons to help defend the land. This family of dragons descended upon what is now Ha Long Bay (hence the name "Bay of Descending Dragons") and began spitting out jewels, pearls and jade. The jewels turned into the islands and islets dotting the bay, and jade became the labyrinth of crystal water channels. The elements linked together to form barriers against the invaders and the people kept their land safe and formed what later became the country of Vietnam.

Reading this, you can imagine why Andy and I couldn't miss out on seeing Vietnam's most important natural wonder! And neither the legendary landscape of dragons and pearls, nor the fact we splurged a little and saw it in style on a Chinese junk, disappointed.~> read more

  It was very touristy, especially when you consider that everyone must float on some type of vessel to get out there as it's completely protected and patrolled by UNESCO, so that should limit numbers but it really just increases the junks on the water. But it was worth it because the landscape is something foreign to our North American eyes. Plate tectonics and the Ice Ages just didn't do the same thing in the US that it did over here in Asia.

Halong Bay is a fantastical archipelago of limestone islands, monoliths, caves, grottoes that rise majestically from the Gulf of Tonkin, and truly look like the scales of a dragon's back because they're spiky and covered in reptilean green vegetation. To best explore the area, one needs to be on a boat -- so why not get native and try out a Chinese Junk? Exactly. Yes is what we thought too, so Andy and I signed up a for a small tour that included two days plying the jade bay, sea kayaking through the grottoes and one starry night aboard the junk. Cruising around on a wooden boat with a carved dragon's head pointing out to sea instead of the typical blond, barebreasted woman on its bow was great. Climbing up 422 steep, curvy and rocky stairs to a pagoda with a view for miles and miles of the thousands and thousands of islands was tiring but beautiful. We have photos and you'll see we're "glowing" and it's from sweat and not the view.

Sea kayaking among sheer limestone pinnacles that sprint out of the jewel-green water toward the sky and were carved by wind, rain, water and time to form curves, caves and holes was awesome. We kayaked to some hidden beaches and lagoons and frolicked in the water, even watching the sun throw light and shadow off the dragon scales as it set. We also learned our previous kayaking in Laos and New Zealand paid off as we completely dusted our fellow tourists and even our guide (who was paired with a newbie) in the bay, and managed a few moments alone in a secret grottoes where it was nothing but us, the rock, waves and sky. Most excellent!

Halong Bay has a few giant caves, and I mean enormous as in the size of cathedrals, that are molded, mottled, hollowed and curved, all dripping with limestone stalactites and schist rock. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, the Vietnamese spotlight many of the formations within the cave, especially the ones that look like animals or Buddhist figures, with canned gel lights and there's now a Disney-esque feel about it. It's good because you can see the formations, but bad because you laugh when you see stone showered in unnatural pink and green light. After all, this is supposed to be a deep, dark cave!

And they take their cave formations VERY seriously here. Trust me! Our guide Phoung, who preferred for whatever reason to go by her nickname Little Mouse, was anal in her efforts to show our group the rock formations. She was frustrated if we lagged behind and scolded when we didn't participate in her lectures and quizzes asking frequently, "What an animal do you see in over there in the rock with the turquoise light?" Little Mouse kept at us and I finally joined in when she asked what animal did we see, way over there, one that's small and not as pretty as others...? I looked at it and said, "A rat!" BIG mistake. Huge! Little Mouse whipped around in shock, scowled at me and then reprimanded: "It is a NOT a rat! A rat is very, verrry beautiful animal? Why you say rat?" Stunned, I just shrugged and squelched my smirk. Andy later found out her age and birthday, and it turns out that Little Mouse was born in "the year of the rat" according to the Chinese calendar and that's where her nickname comes from. Whoops!!!

We have 7 other photos of halong bay you can view here:


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Those were awesome photos! I can't believe how cool that place looks! Love, Wendy

4:37 PM  

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