Ha Long Bay: "The Climax"
July 29, 2003
Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay is the culmination of my three weeks in Vietnam, the "cross of the t and the dot on the i, the icing on the cake."
Sushma and Paawan, newlyweds from Mumbai (Bombay), were with me on the Hanoi city tour. They had reserved a car and driver for the three-hour drive to Ha Long City. They were booked on a luxury yacht for a two-day, one night cruise of Ha Long Bay. They invited me to join them. Cabins were available.
I knew it would be a splurge. I said "yes!"
We arrive in Ha Long City in time to board the Huong Hai Junk. The brochure is quite accurate:
"Built in the spirit of a traditional South China 'Junk,' the long wooden vessel will take you deep into the bay, far from the madding crowds and instead, anchor for the night in a secluded corner of the magnificent bay. The luxurious boat, more like a floating hotel than a junk, with 27 wood-lined rooms that have two single beds and modern bathroom, and a dining room that can serve up to 40 people at a time."
"Ha Long Bay: Imagine cruising through thousands of karst islets whilst enjoying delicious fresh seafood, sipping champagne and sleeping in comfortable and elegant cabins. Huong Hai Junk offers what is sure to be an unforgettable experience."
The entrance to the bay is mesmerizing: thousands of small islands emerging vertically from the sea, thrusting up into the sky. Just spectacular, monumental, and unique in the entire world. Awesome.
We cruise to a series of caves, also extraordinary. We dock and climb to the entrance to explore. Not exactly spelunking since the caves are well lit and carefully maintained. The total length of the cave complex is 1000 meters deep and 14 meters high.
Later, a relaxing swim in the warm waters of the bay. The sandy beach is small, crescent shaped, and surrounded by green hillsides. From the beach, the view into the bay is filled with the towering islets.
The meals served on the upper deck are as impressive as the scenery. I abandon my dietary restrictions for twenty-four hours. Fresh prawn longer than your fingers, fresh crabs as big as your hand, fresh fried squid, fresh steamed fish, chicken, duck, and salads. French wine.
A late night swim. Climb down a ladder at the stern into total darkness. After the moon sets, can you imagine what I see when I look up?
The next morning, more grottoes, and another swim. This time, a dive from the deck into the sea. Only a few of us brave souls take the plunge and circumnavigate the boat. A final lunch, and noon docking. And sadly, a drive back to Hanoi with Sushma and Paawan, my new friends from India. They insist I visit them for a festival at their ancestral 100-room palace in Rajasthan! Stay tuned.
I have only one regret. I would like to take this cruise again, but under slightly different circumstances. In one of his films, Woody Allen was asked if, after his senior prom dance, he had taken the traditional, romantic, midnight ride around Central Park in New York in a horse drawn carriage? "Of course I did!" he answered. "But," he continued, "I think it would have been better with a girl."
I almost cry when I walk out on the tarmac in Hanoi to board the airplane bound for Bangkok. I look around at the distant mountains. I turn to the flight attendant at the foot of the stairs and confide to her,
"I don't want to leave Vietnam."
"You will return one day."
I know she is right.
P.S. They say, whoever "they" are, they say that traveling broadens your horizons; traveling provides new perspectives and personal growth. Perhaps that is so.
For me, traveling narrows my focus and encourages me to consider what is really important. Let me explain with this brief dialog:
I asked Le Ha, my new friend in Dalat, "Le Ha, what do you do for fun?"
Le Ha responded at once. "I spend time with my son. I read. I listen to music. I meet my friends for coffee. And sometimes, I take a ride into the countryside."