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Guest: Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
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-on–water quality.

limestone karst islets at Halong Bay, Vietnam on a foggy day
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 boats.

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?

sunset at Halong Bay
Sun setting along Halong Bay.

a group of Chinese junks at Halong Bay
Chinese Junks are the vehicle of choice for cruising Halong Bay.

The basic boat we called home, replicating an old Chinese Junk, 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 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.

colorful interior of a cave, Halong Bay
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 it’s 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, it’s Shangra-La.” Expanding on his initial reaction, Charles Guinn from Kansas City, Missouri, continued: “This is the most unique place I’ve ever seen in all my travels. I suspect there’s no other place like it in the world.”

view of Halong Bay and karst islets from the interior of a cave
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.

a floating village in Halong 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 sells items on board a boat, Halong Bay
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 it’s a goat’s 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 Hanoi’s vibrant, colorful Old Quarter where streets are still named for the products they sell to the city’s 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.

(Posted 12-31-2010)



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Let Fyllis know what you think about her traveling adventure.

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Feedback for Gullah Culture

I think a lot of the plantation enslaved Africans began with a variety of African languages and little contact with English speakers. Even today some of the speech patterns of modern descents of the enslaved hold onto this language or some of the patterns even after being away from the area for generations. That's what we heard in N Carolina.

-- Barbara, Mill Creek, WA

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Thank you for your extensive and accurate story of a remarkable, resilient culture!

-- Marlene O'Bryant-Seabrook, Ph.D. – Charleston, SC

And Marlene – thank you so very much for your comment. Nothing makes a writer feel better than hearing something like that!!!

Fyllis

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Nice story thanks, however there are also Gullah speak in southern Belize and Honduras coast to Trujillo, been all over both thanks.

-- Michael Johnson – Myrtle Beach, SC

Hi Michael,

Thank you so much for your comment. However, I think what you're referring to in the Belize/Honduras region is more accurately characterized as the Garifuna culture and language, which somewhat parallels the Gullah. If you'd like more information about that, please read my November 2011 story in travelingboy.com about the Garifuna.

Fyllis

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Toooooooo cooooooool Now I want to go to Florida!!!!

-- Kathy Marianelli – Columbia, Maryland

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Feedback for Ha Long Bay in Vietnam

I'm a Vietnamese and I can't help but went through all of your pictures. They are beautiful, both the couples and the natural sceneries. Vietnam is such a beautiful place, I love it. I have been to Ha Long Bay once, in fact, I have been too all places that you took pictures of. I love your pictures and certainly will comeback for more. Thank you for these wonderful images of Vietnam and its people.

-- Quyen

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Feedback for Family Magic in Orlando

Great article!!! Makes me want to go back and experience it ALL all over again.

-- Ariane – Chicago

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Feedback for Mohonk

I love your signature and the writing (in "Mohonk: Sumptuous Old-World Flavor Tastefully Wrapped in Casual Elegance")... but the place is a bit expensive... more like the Romney types! Is Vic a "photographer" or does he just take pretty good pictures?

-- John Strauss – Campton Hills, IL

Hi John,

Thanks so much for your kind comments. Much appreciated! Yes, I do know Mohonk is expensive -- as is true for so many of the fine resorts -- but it is a historical structure that has been in operation for so many years and offers so many activity options for the whole family without nickel and diming the guest, that for those who can afford it, it actually is somewhat of a bargain.

And no, Vic is not a "real" photographer as much as he is a travel writer in his own right, but sometimes, as he says, he does get lucky.

Again, thanks for your feedback.

Fyllis

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Feedback for the Road to Hana

We enjoyed seeing the Road to Hana from a helicopter! After you get to Hana you've still got to make the return journey. Thanks but no thanks!

-- Betsy Tuel – Rosendale, NY

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Feedback for Dominican Republic

Thank you, Fyllis, for this engaging tour. For years I thought the Dominican Republic was all-tourists, all-the-time. You just made me want to go there! (those waterfall adventures look like great fun)

-- Richard F. – Saugerties

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Feedback for Traveling the Canadian Rockies

We (our family) also took The Rocky Mountaineer (gold leaf) in early June 2011. Great memories! Great food! Great service! I am sorry to hear about this labor dispute, as clearly, the attendants were a HUGE part of the experience. They felt like friends by the end of the trip. Good luck to all employees!

-- Susie – Hana

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Hi Fyllis,

I am one of the locked out onboard attendants. I enjoyed reading your lovely writing based on the trip you took with the level of service that was delivered until June 22, 2011. It is misleading to share this review at this time. Many current guests are dismayed when they experience the low level of service which does not live up to what this blog post boasts. The company is not even responding to the complaints of their guests who have paid top dollar, and are now consistently ignored when they write to ask for a refund. If you do not believe me, go to Trip Advisor and read the recent reviews. There are a few good ones, and they are almost all from pre-lock out dates. Many of those are from complimentary trips and the company seems to be pressuring them to post positive reviews. If you are unaware of what is happening, please consider visiting a site which has many news stories and letters of support from guests and local politicians.

--- City: onboard – Vancouver

Can I ask when this article was written? One of the managers onboard would have been travelling on it for more than 6 years by now...last I heard Shauna was in Edmonton.

--- tnoakes – Edmonton, Alberta

Dear Whomever --

I am so very sorry to hear about the lockout and the bad feelings that have been engendered between management and employees. It was not a situation I knew anything about and realize the timing of my article indeed was unfortunate.

What I wrote about was based totally on my personal experience and only reflects my trip at that time. Please accept my apologies for the difficulties current and former employees are now experiencing and the apparent disparate levels of service experienced by me and more recent guests. It was not something I had any knowledge of.

Fyllis, TravelingBoy



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