Ha Long Bay
Descending the steep narrow plank inch by inch, pulling myself along hand-over-hand along the long pole, I thought: “This better be one hell of a cave!”
Exploring the end-of-the-earth Hang Trong Cave was but one of many surreal experiences on and around Ha Long Bay that encompasses thousands of karst (limestone) islands, caves and inlets in northeastern Vietnam.
In the 1992 movie, “Indochine,” credited with putting Ha Long Bay on the map, actress Catherine Deneuve describes it as “the most remote outpost of Indochina.”
The bay still retains a Lord-of-the-Rings-on-water quality but the few guesthouses from that time have bloomed into almost 300 accommodations of every comfort level. The handful of Chinese junks plying their trade then has blossomed into more than 400 tourist boats.
The boat we called home replicated an old Chinese junk and was, well, basic. But we dined well and huddled about the crew as they studied tidal charts to determine our daily itinerary.
Inflatable canoes powered by guides were our vehicles of choice for exploration. Cave opening too small to navigate? No problem. Just let some air out of the canoe.
The caves that enthralled us the most housed tortured, grotesque shapes hanging from the ceiling and reflected in the water below. It made me feel stuck in a huge maw badly in need of dental work. I was Jonah inside the whale.
Some days we paddled into the caves. Others we trekked through them. One hundred and forty steps up a sheer cliff got us to Hang Sung Sot, the multi-chambered Surprises Cave more than 100 feet high. The name refers to the enormity of the cave: a 1 1/2-mile walk from end to end.
Some chambers were back-lit through sun-filled gaps in the limestone. Others were artificially lighted for dramatic effect. Many Vietnamese hid in these caves during the bombings of Hanoi during the Vietnam War or, as they see it, the American War.
When I asked our guide, Le Van Cuong, why the people of Vietnam were so welcoming to Americans after we destroyed so much of their country, he explained:
“The main reason is that historically my country has been invaded by so many countries over centuries that the Americans were responsible for just a small part of their suffering. And it is just the very nature of Vietnamese people to forgive and forget.”
Although the government is what Cuong describes as “flexible communism,” the burgeoning economy reflects capitalism. “Perhaps you can smell democracy in the air but it’s going to be a while before it settles to the ground.”
Exiting the caves at Ha Long Bay often brought us to a still lagoon, mirroring the multiple majesties of the soaring peaks. Jagged and ragged, alternately solid and porous, the gauzy spires seem lost in the horizon while sinking below the surface of the water.
One delighted paddler exclaimed as his canoe re-entered the world, “Oh my God, it’s Shangri- La.”
Back aboard our floating home, we travelled past a complement of water-borne vehicles that challenged the imagination: multi-coloured fishing boats sporting multi-faceted protrusions, bamboo basket-boats, floating houses on wooden platforms with shrimp, crab and fish farms caged underneath, and rowboats and kayaks powered by kids playing hide-and-seek around the small islands in the bay. A young woman in a basket-boat pulled up alongside selling chocolate, crackers, cookies, nuts, wine, and cigarettes.
Relaxing on deck, we played the ancient game of What do you see in the Strange Formations in our Midst – or more appropriately, in the Ha Long Bay mist: “Hey, that looks like George Washington,” “Nah, a fisherman,” “No, I think it’s a goat’s head” -- until the boat moves on to the next imaginary challenge.
Ruth Lerner of Venice, Calif., reflected on her favourite part. “Floating in the kayak through pitch dark, absolutely quiet caves and emerging into lagoons as still as glass.”
Mature Life Features
If You Go
To learn more about Ha Long Bay itineraries, call Myths and Mountains at 800-670-6984 or visit www.mythsandmountains.com.