1,969 Islands

March 14, 2010 - Halong Bay, Vietnam

“Ha Long Bay’s labyrinthine network of limestone outcrops looms dramatically out of the Gulf of Tonkin and imprints itself forever in my memory.”

Today marks my first visit to a Vietnamese port.  As one of the world’s last surviving one-party communist states, it would be nice to say that it had the same effect on me as China, but that’s not the case.  The buildings in the small port town of Hong Gai were very meager to say the least.  It was, instead, the natural beauty of the limestone islands that captured my attention.  I’ve seen the islands featured in movies like Tomorrow Never Dies and I was thrilled to see them in real life for the first time.

We set off after crew drill in the morning with a very large group of people.  There were eighteen of us, altogether.  We took the shuttle to a rather deserted looking beachfront where two men from the tourist bureau helped us get a boat.  We each paid ten dollars to rent the boat, called a junk boat, for the whole day.  It was awesome!  The boat had two levels, the bottom of which was enclosed.  There was a restroom, picnic tables, benches, and a lady who periodically sold drinks and souvenirs.  And the best part was that it was our personal boat!  We sat on the top level on three benches and watched as we sailed toward the islands.  The boat moved at a very leisurely pace, so it took almost an hour to get there, even though we could see the islands the whole time.    

We stopped at a floating platform anchored in the middle of an entire floating village, which itself was bobbing lazily amongst the islands.  It was incredible to see people living out at sea like this!  They literally had small, single-bedroom huts built on floating platforms, complete with kitchens, televisions, and DVD players.  At this point, we got off our junk boat to board a smaller boat that took us into two caves hollowed out through the islands.  It was stunning!  It was paradise on earth.  The first cave brought us into a lagoon that was only about six inches deep, but about fifty yards wide, and if it weren’t for the cave, the lagoon would be completely inaccessible to the outside world.  The limestone had weathered away to some of the most beautiful shades of gray, green, and yellow I’ve ever seen.  The ponderous growth of lush plant life on top of the island only enhanced the natural beauty of the limestone.  Altogether, there are 1,969 islands, so we didn’t have time to explore them all!  We did, however, make it to the most highly publicized attraction in the bay. 

The Hang Thien Cung or “Grotto of the Heavenly Place” is the most impressive cave to visit in Ha Long Bay.  Its liquid contours illuminated by colored lights make it look like something from a fairy tale.  Since its discovery in 1993, it has been renovated to make access easier and is currently in the running to become the next natural Wonder of the World.  To get inside, you have to walk 164 feet up a stone staircase and into the mouth of a cave.  It was absolutely beautiful inside.  Water, soil, and time had come together to create the most beautiful contours in the limestone.  Large, imposing stalagmites and stalactites decorated the space while deep patterns creased into every surface of the walls, all of which were enhanced by the colored lighting installed during renovations.  We walked through the cave for about forty-five minutes, snapping pictures at every corner, and then we got back on our boat.  Once we were back on the mainland, we walked to the shuttle, and chatted the whole way about how well our day had turned out, given that there were so many of us.  Most times with a group that large, it’s hard to coordinate everyone, but we did it! 

I was a little bummed that we had had a crew drill that morning and needed to be back for social duties that afternoon because it prevented us from going inland to Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city.  However, a passenger who did the all-day tour to Hanoi said she didn’t get to see much.  The main attraction is the tomb of Ho Chi Minh, whose body is still on display for hundreds of visitors each day.  Apparently, the line was so long that the tour didn’t even have time to visit.  I was also a little bummed because I wanted to get a better glimpse of the “enemy territory” that Hanoi would have been during the Vietnam War.  Luckily, however, we’ll be in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) soon and hopefully I’ll get to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels and other famous sights important to the Vietnam War during my time there.  I know it is an important place for many American soldiers, and something that will affect me for the rest of my life.


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