HaLong Bay Spectacular – 2,000 Islands Ahoy!

No plasma screen can stand comparison, Pham Hoang Van, teacher at Hanoi Open University, exclaims, standing on the deck of Indochina Sails, panning his camera around, unable to decide what to focus on.

The artist has been traveling everywhere; not until cruising on Ha Long Bay, a piece of World Heritage, does he realize the full beauty of his country.

In the middle of the sea, appeared the typical red-brown sails. Thousands of mountains, quiet and still like in a mute movie slide by. In the east, Bai Chay Bridge contracts itself into a single strand of white hair hanging over the Cua Luc strait; the cables make a delicate cobweb. Completed in the late 2006, it is one of the world’s five biggest single-cabled, stayed bridges.To the west is the nacreous strip of Tuan Chau Beach. Under the golden sun, balloons waft in the air offering passengers a bird’s eye view of Ha Long Bay. Turned a touristy resort five years ago, the two-kilometer beach is the realm of water sports: jet-skiing, water-skiing, parasailing, boating, climbing and camping.

A hawk floats over the mountains, wings stretching flat and motionless, like an airplane.

Admired from inside the four-star junk, Ha Long Bay is a field. For nearly 300 million years now, the stone mushrooms have been growing there, resisting all the destruction of typhoons and salty water; the tides have polished their feet smooth.

The mountains, legends go, are the gems spat out by fairy dragons to help Vietnamese people prevent the progress of the enemy’s boats. Today, after 4,000 years of the nation’s history, the gems are still here, but just to attract million after million of tourists. According to the figure released by Quang Ninh Trade and Tourism Department, with in the first six months of this year, the province has welcomed above 2 million tourists, twice the local population. Obviously, Ha Long Bay, twice recognized by UNESCO as the World’s Heritage, is the main attraction.

One thousand nine hundred and sixty nine islands depict life in 1969 different ways. On the immense smoothness of the sea, the cock and the hen on Trong Mai Island are still nuzzling each other; the two beaks still in contact. The human head on Dau Nguoi Island is looking toward to Ha Long City, like an exile missing his father land. A dragon is hovering in the shape of Rong Island. And from Canh Buon Island a sail is unfurling.

There was a rumour that pollution from coalmines, destruction of mangrove forest for aquaculture, tourism and domestic sewage would deprive Ha Long of its UNESCO-given title of World Heritage Site, but this has not happened.

Ha Long presents a bay without condoms, cigarette ends and candy wrappings stuck in the rocks. If someone reports to the bay management board that any passenger on our cruise litters the bay, we’ll be sacked, Truong, the cook on Indochina Sails, says. “An advantage of working on board is free cruises and the pure air. No traffic jams, no dust”, the 23-year-old man adds, smiling.

The Indochina Sails drags the anchor along on the seabed. The jungles on the mountainsides are also moving. Some approach while some recede.

The Indochina Sails drags the anchor along on the seabed. The jungles on the mountainsides are also moving. Some approach while some recede.

Cua Van fishing village is a complex of about 200 green boathouses hidden in a wind-tight gulf. On the floating yards, a baby has crawled to the water’s edge; two teenagers are bending down, getting the shipworms out of the nets, preparing for the next fishing session when night comes; the men are fixing the bamboo frame of a squid trap. An elderly woman sits grazing at the sea…These people are the human values, adding to the picture of the sky, the mountains, and the water of Ha Long Bay. They are descendants and continuance of the ancient Vietnamese of Ha Long Culture, from more than 4,500 years ago.

Two floating schools are the great revolution brought to the villagers who for thousand of generations have been illiterate.

Inside the cultural centre, youngsters are playing cards, laughing loudly. Recruited to work in tourism, they have lost the dark-brown complexion of their fishing fellows. Completed in 2006 as an effort to promote tourism, the fishing cultural centre offers almost nothing but craft products produced on the mainland.

Surrounding the floating village, mountains spring up. Reflecting against the sky, the heaving peaks look like a big waves rushing from the horizon. At the foot of the mountains, juvenile needlefish, tails blossoming, mouths long and pointed, drift cheerfully, nibbling at the surface.

At the strait, something is moving. A villager in a conical hat appears on the little wooden boat, smiling. The ivory teeth blossom between the dark-brown, wrinkled cheeks of a fishing woman.

The stone steps lead to the wonder of La Grotte des Surprises. From the ceiling, stalactites drip down, abundant and magnificent. On the ground, stalagmites grow up, undaunted and resplendent. Before creating the world, perhaps God had made a model here, in this cave. From a round base, a long chunk of rock shoots up. The tour guide tells the tourists, “Does it look like an index finger?” And then with a wink he turns to the person next to him, whispering, “Sorry, but people say it resembles a penis”. On a shrine, a mother embracing a child tells of the Napoleon legend. A turtle plods with the head raised up; a lion rests on a stone base. As if to suit the world of stone life, thousands of bats sticking on the ceiling also stay motionless.

When the tourists return from Soy Sim Beach, the buffet on the deck is ready. On the grill, chicken wings, pork ribs, beef are dripping down drops of fat, sending out a fat aroma, and a shriveling sound. The oysters are opening their shells, showing the white, delicious meat; pieces of corn and tomato are turning brown, inviting.

Twilight gathers the last remnants of light. In a moment, the bay becomes a mysterious jungle with numerous stone creatures appearing from the nearly 2,000 rocky islands.

Then the first stars appear, piercing stillness of the evening sky, twinkling like a million diamond points of light. From the ocean, wind comes up, blowing the clouds into the mainland.

The traditional music session is the last course of the dinner on deck. The tourists go to bed, lulled by the sea wind hissing and the waves rocking.

Nature has regained its sovereign. The stars get brighter; the clouds turn drifting over the masts like thousands of huge jellyfish. Some shooting stars dash from the west to the east, falling behind the mountains.

Even the mountains have gone to sleep at the lullaby of the sea. From that interminability of the night, some fishing boats run by. Their engines chug for a while before falling into the dead silence. Their yellow lamps flicker, like fireflies on the surface.

Further, at the sea mouths, the squid-fishing ships are lit up. The squid, lured by the light, gather around the nimbuses, to be caught by an electric net. If squid from Nha Trang Bay are favoured for their large size, those from Ha Long Bay are preferred for their taste.

There is a long howl as if some monkey on Monkey Island is calling its mate.

The breeze gets stronger.

From the rim of the dark mountains, a slender, golden crescent rises up, glistening. And clouds are like a massive herd of animals sliding by the last-quarter moon. In one moment it is a tailless bear, in another moment it is a five-leg dog.

Crowding around the junk, mountains are still silent, sacred as if they are the souls being fossilized since the Neolithic Ha Long Culture 50 centuries ago.

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