Thursday, April 26, 2007

Hanoi 2007: Enter The Dragon

One of the excursions that I failed to participate the last time round was a trip to Ha Long Bay, which is a natural wonder of limestone islands set in a narrow bay in the Gulf of Tonkin, about 170km from Hanoi. So this time round I made sure we found some time to visit this UNESCO World Heritage site.

We booked ourselves on a one-day trip to the bay via our hotel, and early the next morning, we were herded into a large van with about ten other tourists from other hotels. The journey took about 3 1/2 hours through the northern countryside which afforded us some really beautiful vistas of padi fields, pineapple stands and duck farms.

From one crammed space to another: upon arrival at the jetty, the guide shepherded us through a narrow and precarious route along wooden planks, concrete steps, and boat alleyways to our very own junk which would ferry us to the bay area.

Slowly but surely, the captain manouvered the junk deftly through the traffic jam of various boats, yachts and junks, and before long, we were sitting on the sundeck enjoying the cool spring breeze as the boat lazily made its way around the rocky mounds and limestone islands.

Ha Long Bay literally means Bay Of Descending Dragon. According to local legends, the Gods sent a family of dragons down to help the locals fend off the Chinese invaders. As these heavenly creatures descended, they spat out jewels and jade which turned into the limestone islets dotting the bay, creating a barrier against the invaders. After having succesfully defended the land, the dragons settled in the bay and today it is believed that their descendants reside in the murky depths of the bay in the form of the mythical creature, tarasque.

The bay is also home to many fishermen and thier families who work and live in floating villages. We were brought to a fishery where sea creatures of every kind were either caught or reared. It is said that there are over 200 species of fish and 450 molluscs living in the bay, prompting the Vietnamese government and UNESCO to set up a joint effort to conserve this natural and rich marine habitat for generations to come.

There were also a number of locals selling various kinds of fruits in small sampans in the fishery where we had lunch. Unfortunately they were more more than willing to cheat us poor tourists as some offered to sell us a handful of rambutans (no more than ten) for US$5!

Later, we stopped by one of the islands where we had to climb a rather steep flight of stone steps to enter an extensive network of limestone caves that was, oddly enough, lit with multicoloured lights, creating a rather creepy "Phantom of The Opera" atmosphere. The stalactites and stalagmites formed very unique and sometimes funny shapes, including one mound which was very imaginatively named Penis Rock!

In any case, our brief foray into mountain climbing was worth the huffing and puffing for at the very top, we were treated to a breathtaking view of the island as well as the entire bay.

Before we knew it, it was time to set sail for home. As the evening sun peppered the dark blue waters with tiny flecks of golden light, the silhouette of the junks floating aimlessly into the horizon reminded me of the scene where our very own Michelle Yeoh famously assisted (read: seduced) James Bond on a not so leisurely cruise down these waters during one of their escapades in 'Tomorrow Never Dies". Vodka martini, anyone?


Bossie said...

I love the pic with the two limestone islands and the small boat in front! Very nice!:-)
When you invite me for trip to Vietnam? ;-)

Kai-Chong said...

Never thought much about Hanoi , but after reading and seeing your post, tempted to explore it :)