Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Ha Long Bay, Where the Dragon Descended

3 March 2015

This is going to be a long blog with tons of photos - just warning everyone!

And I'll try to keep the photos small, so that the blog can fit.  However, the scenery is gorgeous, so please click on any photo to enlarge it and get a better view of this incredible feat of Nature!

Ha Long Bay is located in the northeastern part of Vietnam, pretty much straight east of Hanoi.  It's a 3 or 4 hour ride from Hanoi to Ha Long City, the place where the cruises leave for the bay.  So we started out with the long bus ride, which is included in all the tour packages.  (We succumbed to the tour package, since there really isn't any other way to see this part of the country.)

The day was grey and rainy, the bus small and cramped and packed full of travellers and luggage, and the drive insane!  I had a view through the center of the bus and out the windshield, and I could see that the roads were full of motorscooters, cars, buses, trucks, and that everyone seemed to pass other vehicles without caring much about oncoming traffic.  Really, the oncoming vehicle would honk their horn and flash their lights, as if to say "You're in MY lane!" and our driver would honk back saying "Tough luck, get outta my way."  We never hit anything, but I definitely had a racing heart for most of the trip!

Anyway, we arrived at Ha Long City, and took a wooden tender out to our boat, the Imperial Luxury, or Luxury Imperial - not too luxurious, but a very pretty wooden junk, with nice staterooms and private en suite bathrooms.  We went with the middle priced tour, and it was very comfortable.  Our ship had an quaint little wheel house that looked like a temple (and had a shrine), an upper deck for sunning (ha! - not on our trip!) and sitting under a covered section, a lovely dining room on the middle deck, and the cabins at water level.  We also had an interesting mix of travellers, with several other Americans, a few couples from Great Britain, four young just-graduated doctors from the Barcelona area (all women), a family from the US but possibly with Vietnamese heritage (the older couple didn't speak much English), as well as a Vietnamese family with a cute little boy.  (I was impressed by the mom, who wore off-white dresses each day.  She always looked so pretty and so clean!  I can never keep white that clean, and wouldn't even try on a boat, so I was absolutely impressed by her!)

Okay, so, the place, Ha Long Bay.  Most of the tour photos and online photos that you see are aerial views on sunny days.  At sea level, we don't see all the different islands, cays, keys, islets, and sea stacks that make up the collection of land within Ha Long Bay. 
And much of the time the bay is full of fog, mist, rain, or any other form of warmish precipitation that you can think of.  Drizzle?  Sprinkle?  Showers?  Yes, all of that.  Generally wet.

But this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of only a few that are double heritage sites.  Ha Long Bay carries the titles of both a Natural Features (or something like that) UNESCO World Heritage Site, as well as Cultural Heritage.  There is a unique lifestyle that is part of Ha Long Bay, but I'll get to that later.

Natural Features.  Ha Long Bay is a bay, obviously, full of rocky islands and tall rocky pillars and very few beaches.  Very interesting geologically, and the geomorphological explanation for this truly unique place is pretty complicated.  It's a combination of the climate (warm and damp) creating various layers of rock over the millenia, the various tectonic events over those same millenia causing uplifting of some of that rock into hills and mountains, sea level change over millions of years (the bay is currently quite shallow but at one time was quite deep), and of course erosion over time as well.  Simple explanation - earthquakes pushed up the hills, after the Ice Age the area flooded, water wore away the soft rock and left the hard rock.  (At least, that's what I could figure out from what I read online.)  And you know the hat was in geologist heaven for this trip!

The Vietnamese, of course, have a legend which is much more interesting than the science.  Centuries ago, when the Chinese people came to invade Vietnam, the people prayed and a dragon came down from heaven.  (Dragons live in the heavens here.)  To assist the good people of Vietnam, the dragon (the mother dragon) spit huge rocks at the invading Chinese, to block their way through the harbor.  After defeating the Chinese in this way, the dragon liked the area and dove into the bay to stay.  Thus the bay is called Ha Long Bay, ha long being Vietnamese for "descending dragon."  (Hanoi, or Ha Noi, means "rising dragon" - referring to the dragon that rose from the Red River, seen by the emperor roughly 1000 years ago, who built the first capital here.)  Other legends say the dragons spit fire and burning emeralds, which incinerated the invaders and created the rocks.  Some legends go on to say that the mother dragon and her children took human form, and thus the Vietnamese people are descendants of these heavenly dragons.

However it was formed, the place is truly unique!

Most of the cruise boats anchor or moor in one specific area for the night, both to preserve the bay itself as well as not disturb the people who live among the islands.  There are women who come through on their little row boats, selling drinks and snacks.  (Most of the rowing boats are rowed with the person facing forwards, as opposed to British or American row boats where the rower faces backwards.  Interesting.  Not sure which is more efficient in terms of energy expended.)

So, we had a huge lunch, and later dinner, in that lovely dining room.  People went out kayaking and cave exploring in the afternoon, but it was chilly and drizzly.  Though I spent much of my time on the top deck, just enjoying being at sea (or bay) and the natural beauty of this otherworldly spot.

Evening - you know the staff never wants the guests to get bored.  They might start trouble, or something.  I don't know.  So there are always activities.  The evening activity, during and after happy hour and dinner and the post-dinner happy hour, was karaoke.  The fun young American threesome was very excited about the karaoke, and they were quite funny to watch.  Well, Richard and I got caught up in the moment, and actually got up to perform our rendition of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."  ("Wimawe")  We managed to sing the entire thing with the right words (it helps that the words are projected on the screen, and the instrumental is played along) - with Richard on the melody and me singing the descant falsetto.  Of course, at the end everyone cheered (as we had cheered for them).  But the funniest part is that the computer or karaoke machine scores the singers, I suspect based on whether you sing along with the entire song.  And we received the highest score of 100!!!!!  So there was more cheering, and we agreed we're ready for television.  (Not!)  It was quite funny.  I sang a duet with a British lady (an old American folk song I knew from my Joan Baez albums, years ago), and we got another 100!!!  And then Richard and I earned the lowest score of the night with our "Blowin' In The Wind."  Most fun were our Barcelona doctors singing the Macarena, with people dancing all around the room!  Anyway, as you can imagine, it was just frivolous fun.

Next morning, breakfast was early (they keep a tight schedule) and then we were off to see the pearl farming.  Quite a lot of aquaculture goes on in Ha Long Bay.  Apparently both this area and the island of Phu Quoc have all the ingredients for pearl farming - something about the temperature and clarity of the water plus the mild climate makes extra luminous pearls, or something.  It was pretty interesting, although I feel sort of bad for the poor oysters.  But they get eaten, and the shells are used both for the beads that are inserted into the oysters as well as for jewelry, buttons, and various knicknacks.

The sun came out briefly, and we could see how gorgeous this place can be in nice weather.  I can only imagine how glorious it would be to visit Ha Long Bay on a nice summer day!

After the pearl farm, we went back to the sleeping bay, and eventually a boat from the resort arrived.  There are two day/one night tours, or three day/two night tours.  For some reason, the visits include only one night sleeping in the boat.  In fact, we each were issued a permit saying we could spend one night on Ha Long Bay.  I don't know if this is to limit the visitors to the area, or what.  Our tour director said that last year there were 70 million visitors to the bay.  70 million!!!  That's an average of 20,000 visitors every single day, all year long!!!  So perhaps the one night on the bay limitation is a way to prevent overuse and try to preserve this unique environment.

Anyway, this means that the three day trips include a second night on one of the islands.  Our package included a night in bungalows on a private beach.  However, when we booked the trip at the beginning of February, it was quite cold and we took the advice of the travel agent and went with the hotel option, rather than the beach bungalows.  

So, the resort boat brought the people who had spent their second night at the bungalows, and they got back on the boat.  All of us with the second night ahead of us got into the resort boat, with luggage.  And the people with the two day trip package stayed on the boat.  (You can imagine the logistics of sorting out everybody!)  Of course, there were anomalies - the three American friends stayed at the bungalows for a third night.  The young Vietnamese family didn't come back on the boat after the resort, I'm not sure exactly where they went since they didn't speak much English.  The packages can be customized, which is part of the beauty of the system.  So that you don't feel like cattle being herded from here to there.  Or only a little bit.

We passed karst towers (the scientific name for the tall skinny pillars of rock) looking like salt shakers rising out of the ocean.  You can see how eroded the base is, sort of undercut from the waves.  Eventually the tower will either topple over or a section will sheer off.  Which is probably why so many of these rocks and islands have steep cliffs and jagged edges.  

At one of the few beaches there was a lovely little temple or shrine, all golden tile, sitting by itself.  As we passed around the karst towers, it was almost like playing peek-a-boo with the temple which seemed to duck behind the rocks, only to pop out a few seconds later.  Didn't see much of anything else on the island other than the small temple. 

There were rocks with caves eroded out of the center, some of the islands being almost hollow.  Others have arches carved out by the sea, making lovely spots to swim through at low tide.

And we passed fishing villages, the floating villages of Ha Long Bay.  This is what I found most fascinating about the place, even more than the raw beauty of the location and the geological formations.  Yes, they are awe-inspiring, to see what nature or one's idea of a deity or whatever has created.  And UNESCO has labelled the site an important part of the earth's physical heritage, since it is such a complex geological site that not only portrays how parts of the geology was formed but also is an environment in flux, a place constantly changing due to the elements.

But even more impressive are the people who live in the fishing villages of Ha Long Bay.  These people, and their lifestyle, are the reason this area was awarded the UNESCO World Heritage designation for Unique Cultural Heritage.

Imagine living in a small little house, basically one or two rooms, floating on a bay.  At the base of a rocky island with sheer cliffs hovering several hundred yards or meters above you.  Cold, damp, constantly in motion.  Not knowing if rocks might tumble down and rock your floating home.  Or if that cliff might slice away from the island and fall on your house, or your boat.  Maybe cause a small tsunami which washes away everything you own.

I don't think they have electricity, unless it is solar powered.  We didn't see any power lines, or generators.  Almost all of the houses had satellite dishes, though, so there's some kind of power for television, or internet.  I asked about children - there isn't a school among the fishing villages, the children live with other relatives in one of the land-based towns either on the mainland or on the large island of Cat Ba, here in Ha Long Bay, and attend school there.

We did see quite a few dogs, and several cats.  They were obviously well-cared-for pets, just for company and affection.

I imagine it isn't an easy life, living in a floating village.  People either fish or have aquaculture farms - you can see the floation devices with a grid of boardwalks around some of the houses.  People raise shellfish this way, as well as other sea creatures.  (Jellyfish?  Sea cucumbers?  I'm not sure - I was told sea animals.  Could be anything.  Even seaweed.)

We eventually arrived at the bungalow resort, where we had to take a horrendously high and long and rickety bridge to the island for our lunch.  Ugh, it was a horrible bridge for those of us with vertigo or acrophobia.  Very dizzying!

We were seated with an older couple from Switzerland - they spoke French, so I had a conversation with them.  The lady spoke no English, although the man spoke some - and Richard has little French - so there were pauses while the man and I translated for our spouses.  But they're travelling around SE Asia, and were impressed with our two and a half years of travel.  

Back to the boat to take us to the hotel, and a few people who wanted to explore Cat Ba City.  (Don't you love the dragon figurehead on our boat?)  Back past the floating villages, and around the corner of Cat Ba Island, or Dao Cat Ba (minus the accent marks) in Vietnamese.

Okay, since there are a bunch more photos of the fascinating floating villages (look for a few cats and dogs around the wonderfully cheerful and bright buildings and boats), here are some facts and figures about Ha Long Bay.

"Ha Long Bay has an area of roughly 1,553 sq km, including about 2000 islets, most of which are limestone.  The central core of the bay, the densest area, has an area of 334 sq km with a high density of 775 islets."  According to various articles quoted in the Wikipedia entry, "the limestone in this bay has gone through 500 million years of formation in different conditions and environments.  The evolution of the karst here has taken 20 million years under the impact of the tropical wet climate.  The geo-diversity of the area has created biodiversity, including a tropical evergreen biosystem, oceanic and sea shore biosystems.  Ha Long Bay is home to 14 endemic floral species and 60 endemic faunal species.

"Research has shown the presence of prehistoric human beings in this area, tens of thousands of years ago.  The successive ancient cultures are the Soi Nhu culture, around 18,000-7,000 BCE; the Cai Beo culture 7000-5000 BCE, and the Ha Long culture 5000-3500 years ago.  

"Five hundred years ago, the poet Nguyen Trai praised the beaufy of Ha Long Bay in his verse Lo Nhap Van Don, in which he called it "rock wonder in the sky."

"The bay consists of some 1,600 limestone monolithic islands, each topped with thick jungle vegetation, rising spectacularly from the ocean.  Several of the islands are hollow, with enormous caves.  Two bigger islands, Tuan Chau and Cat Ba, have permanent inhabitants as well as tourist facilities including hotels and beaches.  There are a number of beautiful beaches on the smaller islands.

"A community of around 1,600 people live on Ha Long Bay in four fishing villages.  They live on floating houses and are sustained through fishing and marine aquaculture (cultivating marine biota), plying the shallow waters for 200 species of fish and 450 different kinds of mollusks."   [Note - we even saw a few stores and workshops among the boats and houses in these floating villages!]

"Almost all of the islands are individual towers in a classic fenglin landscape with heights from 50 meters to 100 meters, and height/width ratios of up to about six.  Another specific feature of Ha Long Bay is the abundance of lakes inside the limestone islands.  All these island lakes occupy drowned dolines within fengcong karst." (Okay, fenglin refers to the isolated tall towers of rock.  Fengcong means a cluster of the tall rocks, essentially a group of fenglin.  Karst is the limestone pillars or towers.  Dolines are sinkholes.  Don't you love geological jargon?)

Birds and animals live on some of the islands.  Cat Ba island is home to the highly endangered Cat Ba langur, a primate native to Cat Ba island.  We saw photos of these little guys, they look like monkeys with blondish hair on their heads.  

These are the rarest primates in the world, since they are native only to this one island, and it's not a big place.  Very cute little guys, hard to find, and they only live in one area of the island.  Fortunately, there are only about 9,000 inhabitants on Cat Ba island, so the humans aren't exactly encroaching on the langur territory.

The entire entrance to Cat Ba City is lined with one huge long floating village, the clusters of houses hugging the rock islets that dot the harbor mouth.  It has been estimated that about 1,500 live in this floating village alone.

We disembarked in Cat Ba City, which is, well, barely a city if the entire island has 9000 inhabitants, including the floating village.

Our tour guy had a bus waiting to take us and the "city" sightseers in to the actual city.  I'd guess we drove a few kilometers, definitely less than five km, winding around and up and down hills before arriving in downtown Cat Ba, right on the boat harbor.  Lovely little harbor with more floating village boats, colorful fishing boats, a few floating restaurants.  The whole thing was ringed by a narrow park with trees full of flashing LED lights and twinkling fairy lights.  Not much to the village, a market toward one end, a beach at the other.  Our hotel, the Sea Pearl, was at the major intersection.  

Our hotel turned out to be more posh than we expected - we had a huge room with a lovely king bed, a huge bathroom, and wonderful waffle-weave robes that actually fit!  (Asian people tend to be smaller than those of us of European descent, so finding a hotel robe that is long enough and wide enough is rare.  And I do love wearing a hotel robe after a shower, somehow it just seems so luxurious!)

I enjoyed just being in one spot that wasn't moving, although I get that residual sensation of movement for a day or two after getting off a boat.  Richard did a little exploring, and reported that there wasn't much to the town.  We had the standard package tour dinner, and walked around after dark - and yes, there isn't much to Cat Ba City.  

So we had a relatively quiet night on land, experiencing a little bit of life on an island in Ha Long Bay.  Early morning pick up to get to the boat, then back to the bungalow resort to pick up the people and head back to our big boat.  Everyone enjoyed their night, whether in the bungalows or in the hotel.  Apparently our boat captain also enjoyed his night - the Swiss guy came and told me, in French, that the pilot was falling asleep at the wheel of the boat!  Okay, there was quite a bit of Marcel Marceau in his explanation, but it was tres French.  And what could I say but "Vraiment?"  (Really?)  and "Alors!"  (sort of "well then!) and look incredulous.  I translated for everyone else on the top deck, and we started keeping an eye on the steering.  I don't know what we'd have done if the boat started heading straight for a rock, but we were prepared to jump, or scream, or take over piloting the boat!

Another lunch on the boat, although quite early, and then we arrived back in Ha Long City.  Then the looooong drive back to Hanoi, where we arrived in the late afternoon, happy and tired.

I'll end with just a few more photos - I can't repeat enough how incredibly beautiful this place was.  Really, one of those places that everyone MUST see if they get to Vietnam!  It really does look like rocks floating on the surface of the water, tossed there by giants or something.  It doesn't quite look real, you know?  There's an otherworldly quality to the place, not quite moonscape but, well, almost.  As if it could easily be home to dragons.  And ancient warriors.  One of those places that actually exceeds expectations!


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