Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Typhoon in Halong Bay

Today is April 30, the date in 1975 on which Saigon was liberated and the war ended after ten long years. This is a holiday here. There are flags and banners everywhere to mark this important date in Vietnam history. For those of us who were alive during that time, the Vietnam war is a distant memory. In Canada it was lived mostly through the news of massive demonstrations against the war as well as the arrival of draft opponents in Canada, plus movies and songs on the subject. Last year when we were in Washington DC for Memorial day to see the huge parades of Vietnam veterans, we again were reminded of the horrors of that war. Here in Vietnam we can feel the pride of the people in their victory and independence after so many years of oppression and war.

Another hallmark of Vietnam is the mysterious Halong Bay. It is on every tour agenda in Vietnam; a must-see according to tourist books. The Bay has Unesco World Heritage status. The water is emerald green. Three thousand islands composed of tall limestone cliffs jut out of the Gulf of Tonkin. The weather is unpredictable and there are days where the Bay is engulfed in cloud and rain. You take your chances, as do the millions of others who come to Halong Bay.
Pierre has longed to visit Halong Bay, ever since he first saw Catherine Deneuve in the film "Indochine" where she sails dreamily between the breath-taking mountains in the myst, searching for her fugitive son-in-law. Today he was to fulfill that dream with an overnight stay on a replica of a Chinese junk, floating over the bay, between the limestone towers.
We took an early morning bus for the four hour trip to Halong Bay, along with many other people, both tourists and Vietnamese people who were enjoying a holiday.
Half-way there, our tour guide announced that the coast guard was not allowing any boats to stay overnight on the Bay because there was a risk of  typhoon. But, we were told, we would get our money back, minus $50 per person, to cover the cost of the bus and the day tour of the bay. What a disappointment, but what could we do? We boarded our boat and were greeted warmly. The boat circled around the harbour for what seemed about 2 hours while we were fed a delicious Vietnamese meal of prawns, squid, rice and vegetables.
There were many other boats doing the same thing. We all were anxious to get out further into the Bay and enjoy its beauty. More people boarded the ship and off we went to visit a huge grotto. These caves are formed in the limestone karst, as we had seen in Laos. The area around the grotto was a mass of tourists boats, honking to get others out of the way.

Once inside, after a climb up steep stairs, there is a disney-like atmosphere complete with coloured lights shining onto the stalactites, to say nothing of the hundreds of people walking though the cave. The cave is spectacular despite the numbers of people who are testimony to the popularity of this tourist attraction. But did we really need to be part of that crowd? We certainly asked ourselves that question many times.

Back on the boat we were taken a little further into the Bay and were able to kayak among some of these impressive structures. Some people chose to travel in Vietnamese bamboo boats, rowed by lovely Vietnamese women who row up to 8 people per boat. What strength! We passed fishing villages consisting of a little houses on rafts of large barrels. These are then anchored by long cables hooked onto the rocky formations in the Bay.

                                                       Fishing village in Halong Bay

                                                        Bamboo boat with rower

We got back on the boat, after about 45 minutes.  As we watched the sun begin to set over the Bay, our boat, along with all the others, headed back to the harbour, only about a mile from where we had been. We piled back on the bus and endured another four hour drive back to Hanoi. In the end, it did pour  rain and there was plenty of thunder and lightening, a slight comfort for those of us who were doubtful that there would be a typhoon. We will never know what it was like on the Bay but we are reassured that such precautions are taken to prevent a disaster that could involve many people.
By the time we arrived back to our hotel, not having eaten since lunch, it was 11pm and most restaurants were closed. Equipped with umbrellas we ran through the streets of the Old Quarter, dashing through puddles, past women closing up their street food stands. At last we found a small place where we could eat. To complete this somewhat upside-down day, a big rat scurried across our path as we picked our way through the dark streets on the way back! The joys of travelling...each day brings new surprises, some good, some not so good. 

No comments:

Post a Comment