Ha Long Bay in Vietnam:
A True Surrealistic Watercolor
Story by Fyllis Hockman
Photos by Victor Block
escending the steep, narrow plank, inch by inch, hand over hand along
the long pole, I thought: This better be one hell of a cave!
Exploring the other-worldly interior of Hang Trong Cave was to be one
of many surreal experiences I was to have traveling along Ha Long Bay
in northeast Vietnam.
In the 1992 movie Indochine, credited with putting
Ha Long Bay on the map, Catherine Deneuve describes it as the
most remote outpost of Indochina. Today, the bay still retains
that end-of-the-Earth, Lord-of-the-Rings-onwater quality.
Halong Bay is an other-worldly experience.
The very few guesthouses at that time have now flourished
into almost 300 accommodations of every comfort level and the few Chinese
junks plying their trade have metamorphosized into more than 400 tourist
I visited as part of a Myths and Mountains Tour, which
also included several days in Hanoi and Sapa in northwest Vietnam, an
area home to several minority villages. But more on that later.
The almost 600 square miles comprised of thousands of
karst (limestone) islands, caves and inlets create a solitary natural
environment that belies description and inspires awe. I kept thinking
how many times can I use the word surreal in one travel article?
Sun setting along Halong Bay.
Chinese Junks are the vehicle of choice for
cruising Halong Bay.
The basic boat we called home, replicating an old Chinese
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 vehicle of choice for purposes of
exploration. Cave opening too small to navigate? No problem -
just let some air out of the canoe. Very versatile.
Some caves were so dark we donned headlamps to maneuver
through. Others so small, the entire trip was negotiated on our backs.
But those that enthralled the most were comprised of tortured, grotesque
shapes hanging from the ceiling and reflected in the water below. I
felt stuck in a huge open mouth badly in need of dental work; I was
Jonah inside the whale, the cave itself its gaping jaw, and the jagged
stalactites above and below giant misshapen teeth.
Some days we paddled into the caves. Others we trekked
through them. One-hundred-forty steps up a sheer cliff brought us to
Hang Sung Sot - the over-100-foot-high, multi-chambered Surprises
Cave - which indeed it was full of.
The caves of Halong Bay are mesmerizing.
Some chambers were back lit by sun-filled gaps in the
limestone, others artificially lit for dramatic effect. I was told the
name referred to the enormity of the cave - a mile and a half
walk from end to end; for me it was the huge highlighted outcropping
protruding at a suggestive 45-degree angle as you rounded one of the
bends, clearly a pornographic symbol that elicits giggles -- if not
outright guffaws from all who come across it.
I could envision a small civilization existing here
in a former lifetime, and was not surprised to hear that many Vietnamese
hid in the caves during the bombings of Hanoi during the Vietnam War
- or, as they see it, the American War.
What did surprise me was some historic insight we received
from our Myths and Mountains guide, arguably the best in Vietnam, Le
Van Cuong. When I asked why the people of Vietnam were so welcoming
to Americans after we destroyed so much of their country, he patiently
explained that on their historic timeline, the Americans were just a
blip: 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.
Very candid about the good and bad in his country and
the pros and cons of the government, his perspective on the current
political climate in Vietnam was also interesting. Although the government
is Communist - what Cuong describes as flexible communism
-- the burgeoning economy reflects capitalism. Perhaps you can
smell democracy in the air but its going to be a while before
it settles to the ground, he observed.
But back to paddling through Ha Long Bay. Exiting the
caves often brings you into a still lagoon, mirroring the multiple majesty
of the soaring peaks. Jagged and ragged, alternately solid and porous,
the gauzy spires seem lost in the horizon while alternately sinking
below the surface of the water. Being of a certain age - and eyesight
- I thought perhaps the surroundings appeared that way because
of my cataracts - all filmy and out-of-focus. But it is more valid
vista than vision - and therein lay their beauty.
Defying convention, one delighted paddler exclaimed
as his canoe re-entered the world: Oh my God, its Shangra-La.
Expanding on his initial reaction, Charles Guinn from Kansas City, Missouri,
continued: This is the most unique place Ive ever seen in
all my travels. I suspect theres no other place like it in the
Exiting one of the many caves into a lagoon.
Back aboard our floating home, we traveled past a complement
of water-borne vehicles that challenged the imagination: multi-colored
fishing boats sporting multi-faceted protrusions; floating houses on
wooden platforms with shrimp, crab and fish farms caged underneath;
bamboo basket boats, and rowboats and kayaks manned by kids playing
hide-and-seek behind the small islands in the Bay.
One of several floating villages in Halong Bay.
A young woman in a basket boat pulled up alongside ours
selling chocolate, crackers, cookies, nuts, wine and cigarettes. Somehow
all that junk food seemed appropriate considering the nature of our
boat (Need I remind you we were on a Chinese Junk
A vendor plies her trade along the Bay.
Relaxing on deck, we play the ancient game of what do
you see in the strange formations in our midst. Or, more appropriately
on Ha Long Bay
mist. Hey, that looks like George Washington,
Nah, a fisherman, No, I think its a goats
head until the boat moves on to the next imaginary challenge.
Ruth Lerner of Venice, California, reflected on the
surroundings: Such quiet, endless beauty, so breath-taking with
no two formations alike. Her favorite part? Floating in
the kayak through pitch dark, absolutely quiet caves and emerging into
lagoons as still as glass.
Such are the wonders of Ha Long Bay, which were only
a part of the memorable Myths and Mountains itinerary (or Mist and Mountains,
as one of my companions deadpanned
) which also included Hanois
vibrant, colorful Old Quarter where streets are still named for the
products they sell to the citys modern sections on the verge of
globalization to the mountains of Sapa where several minorities, practicing
their own language, customs and clothing, still live in primitive villages
as they have for centuries.
Vietnam - a country torn between then and now,
what was juxtaposed with what will be, poised in economic boom and political
transition. Go now before luxury high-rise hotels flood the landscape
and Westernization erodes the culture. For more information, contact
Myths and Mountains at 800/670-6984 or visit www.mythsandmountains.com.