Beasts of the Bay

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
October 5 – 7

Dragons of Ha Long

In North Vietnam, legend tells of a family of dragons that, many years ago, descended upon the country to protect her people from the legions of invading Chinese and Mongolians. The dragons spit enormous pearls upon the earth, demolishing the enemy and sparing the peace-loving Vietnamese people. After the wars, the dragons were reputed to have grown so fond of the country that they made their homes in the green waters of the Gulf of Tonkin, and so formed the archipelago of Ha Long; “The Dragon that Descends to the Sea”. Indeed, the jungle-covered ridges of the Karst mountains jutting out of the sea unmistakably resemble sleeping beasts, and in this stunning landscape of tepid waters and glittering limestone caves, reality and mythology inextricably become one.

We spent our first day cruising out from the coast aboard an ancient Chinese junk. The enormous teak wood boat was lavishly decorated with intricate carvings and crowded with white-linen draped table tops. For lunch and dinner we were served plate after plate of seafood that had only just been harvested from the bay. The junks themselves resembled dragons in their own right; when unfurled, the diagonal battens in their orange sails made them look as though they had sprouted enormous bat wings.

We anchored that night just outside the protected part of the bay amongst a crowd of other junks where our deck and cabin lights formed a softly twinkling constellation in the water. The entire archipelago is a UNESCO world heritage site and all tours adhered to a set of guidelines that included our designated mooring. Several folks took turns vaulting off the decks of the boat, and even a howling Oliver was dipped in over the starboard side.

"Look Ma, no life jacket!"

The following afternoon, we kayaked up close to the mountains and peered into the network of caves the sea had carved into the limestone. On some islands, the water had bored archways clear through the stone and we were able to paddle through as bats squealed in the darkness overhead. Ryan, Ollie and I shared a double kayak and, in his typical fashion, Oliver attempted to commandeer the entire operation. With Ryan’s help, he proved to be an astute paddler, until the rocking motion and three inches of warm water our boat had taken on marinated him into a deep sleep.

The second night was passed in a small bamboo bungalow perched on stilts just a few feet above the sand. We had elected to visit a private island where, along with fourteen other folks, we were treated to a barbeque dinner on the beach. Over the 48 hours of our tour, Ollie had developed an infatuation with Sarah, a charming, well-spoken and very pretty Aussie girl who was about nine years his senior. He followed her around like a little duckling, begging to be held and finally confessing that he loved her on our last night on the island. Both Sarah and her older brother Michael, along with their parents, Andy and Jane, had us outdone. Ryan and I were simply yesterday’s news.

Ha Long had lived up to the hype. The sublime scenery, unique and authentic mode of transport, and delicious cuisine was every bit as described. However, our enchantment came to an abrupt end on the island near midnight, approximately an hour and a half into our last night of rest. Ryan felt an odd tickling sensation on his arm and in the blue glow of our mosquito zapper, he glimpsed the outline of something slithering past us on the bed. He leapt up, hit the lights and I practically hit the room screaming in terror. Crossing our bed in its sickly serpentine way was a dark-red centipede, measuring half a foot in length!! The critter’s girth alone could have qualified it as an extra in Jurassic Park.

Ryan and I spent the following 45 minutes chasing it all over the room and shouting at each other to “kill it”, “just catch it in this beach towel, for the love of Christ”, and “it’s too big for any of that crap, dammit!” Eventually it skittered under the floorboards where I was convinced it would lurk in the shadows and wait for the next opportune moment to crawl into our bed again. While Ollie slept soundly in the next bed, Ryan and I past the remainder of the night napping fitfully in 35 minute increments, with one eye always open and all the lights on. Welcome to Vietnam!

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