Friday, January 11, 2008

Ha Long Bay Day

It is difficult writing in retrospect and keeping orderly memories of the happenings, but sometimes travel doesn’t grant the privilege of dragging out the computer to write. Today was such a day. We had a shuttle van coming to gather us and our overnight bags for the trip to the harbor where we would board a Junk boat. The destination was Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO site.

By 8:00 am, we had showered, eaten breakfast, had our bags packed, and were waiting patiently for 8:15 for our van to arrive to collect us. My bag was my computer, while Ron used my newly purchased carry-on bag for our toiletries and spare shirts. We booked the tour through the hotel and made arrangements with them for two more nights after we spent the one night on the boat, so we left the rest of our luggage stored here.

Promptly at 8:15, the van pulled up with us being the last of the passengers to be picked up. There was a family of four Australians, another couple from the same country, and a couple of Asian women. Ron sat in the front seat while I sat with the young couple, though they seemed displeased having lost the extra seat. Ready for a three hour drive, we braced ourselves; traffic was the normal horrendous and it was twisting and turning around other motorized obstacles all vying for the same patch of pavement called a road. My defense mechanism kicked in and I fell asleep, not waking until my subconscious recognized it was the rest stop we had reached, not just an interruption in traffic flow. We had thirty minutes of R & R, rest and relaxation, or rather stretching and walking to regain the blood flow in our lower limbs.

When we regrouped, Ron and I changed seats. I now had the misfortune of witnessing the acrobatics of Vietnamese driving from a closer perspective. We only had two really close near misses. One was when it seemed our driver had to choose to wipe out a group of twenty tourists who were obliviously taking photos of some demonstration or be part of a five car head on collision. With super human reflexes, he was able to prevent both, but all of us were jostled, tossed, and sent into prayer in the process. Meanwhile, the horns never stop honking, blaring, causing a cacophony, sounding like flocks of disgruntled geese that lost their GSP coordinates while heading south for the winter. How I managed to fall as sleep yet again is anyone’s guess, but it was safer than face potential life threatening situations again and again.

Arriving at the dock, we were prepared for the mayhem and confusion, so we were able to take in stride. Our driver took us to a coordinator who collected our passports. Although we were under the impression we would be sailing with those in our van, we were wrong. We all went on separate boats. As it turns out, there are two companies that run these tours, each of them has one hundred boats and over half of them are sailing every day. A young man came to collect us to show us to our boat. After walking the dock for about two blocks, with people scurrying around us like vermin at the harbor, we discovered our ship was ready for boarding over a plank a foot wide. Thoughts of old pirate movies always run through my mind in these situations. The boarding planks are so narrow; they just about have to have a sword at my back to get me to approach it. In their wisdom, they had someone holding a pole on the boat while another held it on the shore giving us some sense of support and balance. Little did we know at the time that this was about the only support we were going to get on this excursion. The Junk boat was rated three stars, the highest for these types of boats on this trip. They greeted us with hot wet washcloths like the airlines do on long haul flights. As we were given our room key, the choice of fresh mango or pineapple juice was offered.

Our room was 206, but below deck, being one of eight rooms total, it was not difficult to find. It was decked out in dark wood with twin beds, double fans as well as air conditioning, and though we would not need it for such a short trip, a large wooden wardrobe. The bathroom held the supplies of an upper class hotel with shampoo, conditioner, two toothbrushes, two combs, razor kit and so on. Very pleasant for an overnight stay, but realistically I would not have minded a longer cruise in such a cabin.

We thought we would set sail shortly after everyone arrived. Our fellow travelers included a French Canadian couple, a Russian couple, and a single man from Switzerland. However, before leaving dock we were offered a late lunch as it was now 2:30 pm. As the young waiters brought out a shrimp cocktail for everyone else, they had been informed that I don’t eat fish, so we were served a lovely cucumber and tomato salad artistically arranged. Ron was a upset, because he does eat seafood, so he missed out on it. After telling the waiter only one of us was off the fish food, all of his meals were from the sea afterward. Lunch if you could call it in such simplistic terms was closer to a banquet. After six courses, they finally finished with fruit for dessert. Each course was picture worthy such as the vase of flowers that were carved vegetables. The service was exemplary and the food matched with the exception of one beef dish that I alone dined on. However, I had already had a chicken and pork dish prior, so the beef was inconsequential.

It was not until about 4:00 pm that we started out to Ha Long Bay. We are currently in the northeastern part of Vietnam with the bay located in the Gulf of Tonkin. In the area there are 1,969 ‘islands’ that rise up from the water erroneously referred to as islands, which would give the impression they had the ability to be inhabited by humans. They cannot as they are shaped like glaciers without the ice and most as high as the world’s skyscrapers. Some of them are of limestone while the others are schist and 989 of them have been given names. Ha Long Bay contains 775 of these rock islands, which weather and water have carved over the millenniums into interesting shapes, some with holes in their center, others with caves. A good number of them are covered with tenacious vegetation, both plants and trees forming a companionable relationship with the wind, rain and water, thus creating different eco-systems and making them of interest to scientists of various fields. There are many ancient legends on how these formations were originally created and most of them include a giant dragon. One states that a dragon was escaping harm and its weight cut through the land. Where it burrowed out the earth, water filled the area, thus where the mountainous rock remains what escaped the dragon's weight.

Fishing families have built houses on the water on stilts and live permanently on the bay earning their living as fishermen. Women can be seen often rowing small boats to the tourist ridden Junk boats to sell them souvenirs.

We had been assured there would be an English guide for our tour. When we were in the van of Aussies, we were a bit surprised that none of them were on our boat. The French speaking couple had a French guide, the Russian couple had their Russian speaking guide, and even the Swiss man who spoke some English had a German speaking guide. We were without a guide. Thus when we had our first sighting toward the end of the lunch service causing all of us to leave our tables to view the magnificent sights, we had no one to tell us what we were seeing as the others did. The various guides were chattering away with their respective pledges and enlightening them about something, but we only had speculation to get us by. Breathtaking is a minimalist expression for the views surrounding us. Serene and otherworldly are the most apt descriptions.

With each short burst of movement and the sun’s setting, caused the scenery to perpetually change and cause a thrill for what we were viewing. The jade green waters added to the spectacular delight. At one point, we docked at one of the islands where after climbing ninety-six steps, walked through a cave with forty foot ceilings with limestone chandeliers carved by water and wind over thousands and thousands of years, hanging at various stages throughout the cave.

Once we boarded the boat once again, it was a thirty minute sail to the next stop. Ron decided to try wading in the water, but the chill in the air was not tempting me at all. I decided to stay on the boat and read while the others ventured off. The other attraction for this island was a pagoda at the very top, but to reach it, first you had to conquer the 426 steps needed to reach it. This was my second conclusion that I had made the correct decision by staying behind.

When the more adventurous returned to the boat, there was a basket of tangerines and rambutans. We were shown how to open a rambutan, but once you do, it is a sweet treat to eat. Looking at fruits like this, I often wonder how people ventured to guess that this was something edible to try eating it in the first place.

Again we sailed for an additional thirty minutes before we docked for the evening. At 8:00, dinner was served. It was as elaborate as the lunch, but on a grander scale. Ron being the only fish eater at our table of two had no competition for any of the courses served. Strangely, rather than seat us in foursomes, each couple or individual had their own table. Each setting had the linen napkins folded into different shapes. Dinner lasted over an hour, again being multiple courses and at one point; we did not think there would be an end to it. The boat had a roof deck with lounge chairs and lovely sofa type wooden chairs on the dining room deck giving an ample number of places to relax while viewing our surroundings. The lights of the vast number of boats anchored around us, lit up some of the ‘islands’ making them easy to appreciate by reduced light. Breakfast is at 7:00 am, so it will be an early morning.

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