The ghostly dragon’s teeth of Halong Bay
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CUTLINE: One of the many kinds of fishing boats the ply the waters of Halong Bay heads out for a night's work.
The ghostly dragon’s teeth of Halong Bay
By Jerry Wadian
Halong Bay is an almost surreal experience.
The UNESCO site can be hard to get to since it is located over three hours north of Hanoi, and the only way to get there is over some rough, narrow roads. You go through not only rural Vietnam, but also the country’s coal-producing province.
However, the seven-hour round trip is worth it. Halong Bay covers 580 miles of some of the strangest landscapes you will ever see.
Some 25-50 million years ago a giant earthquake (or a giant dragon, if you’re Vietnamese) shook the area, uprooting the land and leaving almost 2000 jagged little islands (called karsts) that resemble teeth jutting from the sea.
Some of the karsts are small and isolated, others are larger and in groups. Most are made of limestone, and thousands of years of erosion have left caves and sinkholes.
The Vietnamese refer to the karsts as dragon’s teeth (in fact, the exact Vietnamese name for the area is Vinh Ha Long, literally meaning “Descending Dragon Bay”).
Professor Don McComb and I spent an afternoon, evening and morning on one of the hundreds of tour boats that ply the bay.
That night there was a full moon lending an eerie, ethereal blue light to the various toothlike islands. In that light, I could see why the Vietnamese consider the bay a magical place; the ancient Chinese consider Halong Bay a haunted place.
The topper came as I was on deck with my cigar when a large dragon-shaped cloud appeared in the sky and its open maw swallowed the moon – I suspect the ancient Chinese would have been terrorized; I was a little awestruck myself.
The various tour companies have their own routes and see different places among the karsts, although the view is much the same, no matter what the route.
We stopped at one karst called Dao Titop, which had a small beach and an observation tower at the top for a magnificent view of the area. My spirit of adventure scoffed at the 400+ steps up the hill to the deck. Fortunately, my knees were more pragmatic and refused to move.
Many of the karsts have large caves. Our boat stopped at one, but again the thought of climbing a bunch of steps – the pagoda in Hue taught me a lot –just to haul my cameras into a dank, tourist-filled, cave helped me to decide to stay and explore the boat.
However, the fishing village was too tempting to pass up. Imagine a community built entirely on the water. People, pets, livestock and all possessions float on the water – even the schoolhouse is afloat.
The government owns everything – no property tax. The people live rent-free and are guaranteed free health care and a free education through high school.
The villagers subsist on what they get from the sea, using some for themselves and selling the rest at the market. Villagers also pull in money from objects they get from the sea that they can sell to tourists on the many boats that stop
We toured the village, which hovers in the shadows of giant karsts, by reed boat (tightly woven reeds with planking on top) with a woman paddling the boat around the inlet.
There were kayaks available, but I needed my hands free to operate the cameras – and drowning isn’t my bag.
Over the parts of two days, we saw an amazing variety of boats: different types of tour boats, various fishing vessels, a Chinese junk, steamers, powerboats, and even a dragon boat crew practicing in the village – most villages along the coast have a dragon boat and participate in the many races held around the country.
The one downside to the two days in the bay was the fact it was cloudy and the light was very flat, making the karsts seem very dull.
Fortunately, late in the first day, the clouds parted and the light was fantastic, allowing me to get some gorgeous sunset pictures.
The cabins on the boat were small, but the food was very good. For entertainment that night we watched a video from a History Channel program showing three men trying to drive motor scooters from Saigon to Hanoi.
There are similar places in China and Thailand, but Halong Bay has them all beat – now, if there were just a better way to get there and back!
Next installment: Vietnam, a spiritual nation, and a little geopolitical reality.