Sunday, 15 April 2012

Extreme Island Hopping

So we've scheduled the motorbike trip of a lifetime through the mountains and hill tribe villages of northern Vietnam, with three days to kill in the lead up. Other than eating lots of noodles, drinking lots of coffee, and finding cheap riding jeans from hole-in-the-wall clothing shops of Hang Dao Street in Hanoi, how would we fill in the time? How about a trip to a little known place called Ha Long Bay for some more limestone karst action, yay!

Ha Long Bay translates into Descending Dragon Bay, based on the local myth of a mountain dragon running to the coast, carving out valleys with its tail, which finally filled with water as it plunged into the sea. It must have been a particularly clumsy dragon, as around 2000 monolithic islands were left scattered in its wake, providing the spectacular setting for tour operators to cart hundreds of tourists around the bay daily.

It was a dreary start, with so much rain and low cloud cover that when the tour bus deposited us at the pier we thought, are we really there yet? It was not the Halong Bay of postcards for sure. Apparently there were hundreds of islands to be seen out there past the grey white mist. And the beautiful brown wooden junks that plied the waterways in the photos were now all painted a ghastly white. Allegedly a certain government leader's poor taste in colour became legislation, resulting in all boats having to undergo a colossally bad paint job. Our initial impressions were not improved by the main engine experiencing a breakdown, but Vietnamese persistence prevailed as the little motor on the accompanying side boat was harnessed for propulsion, and the islands slowly appeared out of the mist.

Misty Karsts - Ha Long Bay
Karst Island on Ha Long Bay
Cruising past animal shaped rock formations like the Laughing Chicken (or Fighting Cock) Island, we stopped by one of the more popular caves, Hang Sung Sot (Surprise Cave). Due to our handicapped boat we ended up arriving after all the other tour groups had left, which made for a pleasantly uncrowded walk up the steps and through spectacular chambers. After a sunset kayak we stayed that night on the boat, enjoying the company of our tour companions over teacup-sized shots of Hanoi vodka and 'happy water'.

Misty Waters - Ha Long Bay
Morning brought a slightly clearer day, so we ventured to the top of Ti Top Island for a 360 degree view of Halong Bay. With the boat's engine repaired, we putted towards Cat Ba Island, where the limestone islands began to erode at the base from the onslaught of the sea. At the dock we picked up some bicycles and rode along a surprisingly picturesque path along clear blue rivers where locals foraged for shellfish at low tide, through jungle clad hills punctuated by caves, and rice paddy farmland where idyllic village life continued despite the tourists.

Cycling Cat Ba Island - Ha Long Bay
Floating Fishing Villages - Ha Long Bay
Most of us continued on a decent jungle walk and climb to another wonderful viewpoint. Some of us also attempted a terrifying introduction to free climbing (without safety gear) in the darkness of a cave. This was followed by an eyebrow-raising abseil down a 15 metre cliff using a questionable looking tree root (also without safety gear) which only a couple of the boys dared to do (Ben then had to climbed back up the tree root to help me work my way back through the dark cave within which I had suddenly frozen in fear).
Courtesy of Erik de Jong

Our achievement of the day (surviving intact!) was celebrated with a great sunset view from our hotel over Cat Ba Harbour and discounted beers (after a spot of haggling) at a local bia hoi joint.

All in all a rewarding trip to spectacular Halong Bay.

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