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Lullaby of Ha Long Bay

Weary from Hanoi, they find a respite on the water in Vietnam, amid grottoes, leaping fish and hundreds of limestone towers.

January 20, 2008|Molly Selvin | Times Staff Writer

HA LONG BAY, VIETNAM — Even if we hadn't already spent a week in the bustle and hustle of Hanoi, the mist-shrouded limestone peaks of Ha Long Bay, echoing birdcalls and water lapping our ship would have been enchanting.

But by the time we arrived at this UNESCO World Heritage site in northern Vietnam's Gulf of Tonkin, we badly needed a break from the mad motor-scooter traffic of the nation's second-largest city, the swarming pineapple vendors and the ceaseless capitalist hustle.

Three days of swimming, kayaking and just chilling on the deck of the Dragon's Pearl, with drink in hand, were the ideal respite and one of the high points of our two-week trip to Vietnam in October.

You can see similar limestone towers in other parts of Vietnam; in Guilin, China; and in Thailand. But their number here -- nearly 2,000 of these mini-peaks dot the bay's 621 square miles -- makes this place astonishing. On the bay, the towers, which some call the eighth natural wonder of the world, are all you can see in any direction.

Legend has it that long ago a celestial dragon appeared to protect the Vietnamese from foreign invaders, spitting out great quantities of pearls to form the islands and the razor-edged mountains that stopped enemy fleets.

In reality, the islands -- from mammoth Dao Hang Trai honeycombed with grottoes to islets no bigger than boulders -- are the work of wind and saltwater on porous limestone.

The bay was home to some of Vietnam's earliest cultures, including Soi Nhu, Cai Beo and Ha Long peoples, and a key defense point. Several times over the centuries, Vietnamese warriors sank steel-tipped wooden stakes among the labyrinth of channels and caves, repelling would-be invaders from China and elsewhere.

Tiny isolated fishing communities still nestle against some peaks; you'll see wooden homes painted bright turquoise and orange that appear to float on the water.

A fascinating drive

My husband, Dave, and I chose the cruise of Ha Long Bay because of its proximity to Hanoi and its World Heritage designation. Still, the 105-mile van trip takes almost half a day -- Vietnam's highway system is still a work in progress and buses and trucks share the road with darting motor scooters, bicycles and plodding water buffalo.

Some users on and other travel websites have complained about the slow ride, but I found the drive through this fast-changing agricultural and industrial region fascinating. We drove through villages where farmers had spread out rice to dry by the side of the road and young men were lashing just-killed hogs to the backs of their scooters. Along the way, we also passed brick kilns, factories and coal mines.

Ha Long City's harbor, a gateway shipping port supplying this fast-developing region, is on the dreary side. In fact, I was having second thoughts about this trip as we dragged our suitcases along a rutted path past rusting, crumbling buildings to the ship, a deluxe junk.

But once we were headed into the bay, the breeze and the view from the motorized Dragon Pearl's top deck, along with our "welcome" glasses of iced tea, lifted my spirits.

So did our cabin. Our room -- like the 17 others on the junk -- was small but contained plenty of amenities, including a king-sized bed, a minute bathroom complete with terry bathrobes and rubber flip-flops, and air conditioning, necessary to cut through the withering heat and humidity.

The first afternoon, our ship and several others dropped anchor at a deserted beach on the tiny island of Soi Sim, where we swam and lounged away the rest of the day. The water was calm and warm, but apart from the setting, this was the least memorable outing of our cruise.

Escalating tourism in the region, perhaps because of its World Heritage designation, has generated litter and pollution. So, here, miles from anywhere, plastic drink bottles and candy wrappers floated in the water and washed up on the sand.

A couple of hours later, we were back on board. With a school of silvery jumping fish as our escort, our ship headed northeast toward the Hang Luon grotto, where the Dragon Pearl dropped anchor for the night in the company of several other junks.

Before dinner, we hung out on the chaise longues arrayed on the ship's deck, watching as the peaks surrounding us turned a dusky blue and lights on the neighboring junks twinkled on. The scene reminded me of a cross between Hawaii's Na Pali Cliffs and Washington's Puget Sound.

Have kayak, will paddle

We were lucky to have gotten Tran Van Bien, a 27-year-old with disarming charm and deep knowledge of the area's geology and culture, as our guide. He was never far away and always eager for the chance to improve his English.

The booming tourism industry has become a magnet for university-educated, ambitious young Vietnamese like Bien, who has earned enough to move his parents off their rice paddy and into Hanoi. He hopes one day to visit his relatives in Orange County, an all-but-impossible dream even with his middle-class earnings.

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