Ha Long Bay is a beautiful area with 1969 limestone islands jutting imposingly upon the skyline. Local legend says that long ago when the Vietnamese were fighting Chinese invaders, the Gods sent a family of dragons to help defend the land. This family of dragons began spitting out jewels and jade. These jewels turned into the islands and islets dotting the bay, linking together to form a great wall against the invaders. The people kept their land safe and formed what later became the country of Vietnam.
I'd been wanting to visit Vietnam for a long time now. She has a rich civilization and has left her temples and traditions throughout the land, and a lucky land at that, filled with nature, huge green fields, the Red River Mekong, mountains, pagodas and long coastlines and sublime scenery.
On August 14 we set off from Bangkok for Ho Chi Minh City, previously called, Saigon. The city is quite big in size and a popular business centre. Vietnam, has a long history of war. The French and American war had resulted massive destruction to the country. All this and more we learned when we visited the many museums. We saw the war reunification palace and war remnants museums. The rich history is preserved very carefully for the new generations and tourists.
After three exciting days in Ho Chi Minh City, on August 17, we went to Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam. Vietnam was once under French rule that lasted eighty years. All buildings, markets, government mansions are architecturally French patterned. Even today, the city looks French. We visited the great Ho Chi Minh museum. They preserved and created a breathtaking museum for their great leader.
The following morning, we started for Ha Long Bay from our hotel. We booked a whole-day-tour for Ha Long from the airport tourist counter. Ha Long is 170kms from Hanoi. The tourist bus took about three and half hours to reach our destination. Our bus stopped in front of the port from where, we rode a wonderful wooden boat towards the mountainous islands through the channels of South China Sea, locally called, Ha Long Sea. Various chalk and cheese islands are stretched throughout the blue Ha Long Sea.
The Vietnamese government and people have arranged diesel powered engine boats for tourists. These boats come in two stories. You can also sleep aboard a junk as part an over-night cruise. Although Ha Long city has many hotels, “night market” is where many chose to spend the entire night shopping. Snacks and water bottles are neatly packed into the small boats where we find floating shops. A floating village of fishermen is the centre of the Bay. They roar around the sea in small boats and canoes. One can even discover tunnels and caves. Vietnamese rice, seafood and fruits are delicious and the pink pearls are and excellent find.
When we finally found Ha Long Bay, it looked so amazingly mysterious. We couldn't avoid the feeling of surprise and awe in the midst of the wonder of nature. To describe Ha Long's beauty, words are inadequate. It is so incredibly beautiful that it summarizes the whole world. Ha Long has its own language. It contains only two elements, stone and water; most simple and most complicated, feminine and masculine, transferable and fixed, hard and soft, heavy and light, hidden and visible, solid and liquid.
The mountains come in different shapes and sizes. Every shape imaginable is set up; cubes, spheres, pyramids, a woman's bosom. One looked like a labored human body, another a worried elderly face, a naughty child, a brave soldier, a devoted wife and mother.
The bay consists of monolithic islands, each topped with thick jungle vegetation, which rise spectacularly from the ocean. Several of the islands are hollow, with enormous caves. Hang Dau Go (Wooden Stakes Cave) is the largest grotto in the Ha Long area. French tourists visited in the late 19th century, and named the cave Grotte des Merveilles. Its three large chambers contain large numerous stalactites and stalagmites (as well as 19th century French graffiti). There are two bigger islands, Tuan Chau and Cat Ba that have permanent inhabitants. Both of them have tourist facilities, including hotels and beaches. There are a number of wonderful beaches on the smaller islands. Birds and animals including bantams, antelopes, monkeys and lizards also live on some of the islands.
The Vietnamese people feel Ha Long in numerous ways. They feel it is a place of continuous establishments. Every wonder of the world is at hand; Egyptian pyramids, mysterious temples, South African temples, lonely Indian pagodas, luxurious Roman palaces, abundant Champ temples, the Great Wall of China and sophisticated Japanese stone gardens.
Being host to two ecosystems; a tropical, moist, evergreen rainforest and a marine and coastal ecosystem, the bay is home to seven endemic species. It is no wonder that on December 2, 2000 at the 24th meeting of committee of the World Heritage in Cairns, Australia, Ha Long Bay was admitted as a World Heritage Site for its outstanding geological and geomorphic value according to the criteria of that Convention.
It is a place where God spun special magic; the magic of stone and water. Mornings are fresh and radiant, noon is peacefully quiet, afternoons are calm and relaxed and when the sun sets into the sea, the surface blushes into a beautiful purple followed by a dark mystifying night. Ha Long remains engraved in my memory in a very special way. I am eagerly awaiting my next trip with great anticipation.
Nazneen Haque Mimi
Photo Credit: Tarik Sujat