Beauty and the beast

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Halong Bay in Vietnam, named after the local resident monster, has a rich cultural imagination in tune with its abundant natural beauty…

Limestone islands — 1,969 in all — rise straight up from the waters today like a close-knit clan of giant menhirs…

Into the dragon’s lair: A journey around the islands in Halong Bay.

When a famous expanse of water is named after a resident monster, you’d do well to watch out for its mood swings: serene can turn sinister, tranquil can become tempestuous… And Vietnam’s magical “Bay of the Descending Dragon”— Ha Long — created, claims local legend, by the very beast that inspired its name, is as temperamental as can be.

The story begins in the ancient past with an attempted Chinese invasion of Vietnam. Roused to fury by the threat to its territory, the dragon had apparently torn its way down from its lair in the mountains to meet the invaders head on, leaving so huge a crater in its wake that water had flowed in from the ocean and filled it. Thus was born the natural wonder that is Halong Bay. The jade and emeralds the beast supposedly spat out in its rage were transformed into innumerable vegetation-covered limestone islands — 1,969 in all — that rise straight up from the waters today like a close-knit clan of giant menhirs. It’s a fascinating interpretation of the way millennia of geological evolution have contributed to the area’s breathtaking beauty that earned it the distinction of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994 and boosted Vietnam’s tourism potential by leaps and bounds.

Strategic location

Given Halong Bay’s geographical position in the Gulf of Tonkin, with the People’s Republic of China breathing down its neck from the north and the east, I can well imagine the dragon’s sense of unease. Vietnam’s history involves, after all, a saga of endless invasions and occupations, with the Chinese having enjoyed the longest run — an astounding millennium — followed by the French and the Americans. Gazing now at the bay’s serene, breeze-ruffled waters from the top deck of the Huong Hai, a mechanised Chinese junk that will take us cruising around the islands with their mysterious caves and grottos, it is hard, indeed, to imagine the place as a scene of great turmoil. Yet, it is here that centuries-old naval battles were fought between the Vietnamese and their aggressive coastal neighbours, giving rise to tales of military ingenuity that helped drive back the enemy on several occasions. The locals are particularly proud of General Tran Hung Dao who sank the Mongol invader Kublai Khan’s entire fleet in 1288 by tricking the latter’s ships into the bay’s waters where camouflaged steel-tipped wooden stakes were already in place. Ironically, it’s the local fisherfolk who are at risk today from some of the hidden mines planted in the bay by the US Navy during Vietnam’s devastating “American War”.

Looking ahead

The Vietnamese, however, are born survivors, disinclined to brood over their tragic legacy. And the carefree smiles of the staff manning our junk make it easier to dismiss the trauma their country has endured as a thing of the past. Besides, the wind is distracting me from sombre thoughts by teasing holes in the cloud cover overhead. A shy post-monsoon sun peeks through, setting the waves a-sparkle and transforming the scene into a Turner masterpiece. I watch this amazing play of light and try to visualise Halong Bay in the depths of winter, a surreal ocean of mist encircling the brooding silhouettes of Rooster Island, Incense Burner Island and the evocatively named Lonely Island — just three of the nearly thousand such islands bearing names to match their shapes. I’m told, however, that visibility is poor in winter, making navigation treacherous. The summer months are iffy too, despite the promise of deep turquoise waters mirroring a cloudless sky. Intense heat and humidity are a deterrent then, as are the thunderstorms that often lash the bay, leading to frequent cancellation of boat tours. The dragon’s temper still erupts, it seems, though only seasonally.

Baby-faced Nam, our tour guide for the day, interrupts my reverie with the announcement that we’re approaching the island where the junk is scheduled to drop anchor. Ashore, a steep flight of steps transports us to Fantasy Land or rather, Heaven’s Cave, an enormous grotto with the sun spiralling in through an aperture high up in the roof to justify the fanciful name. A labyrinth of giant stalactites and stalagmites in intriguing shapes — a dragon, an elephant, entwined lovers — the cave is suffused with dreamy artificial light — violets and greens — and looks like a Hollywood horror movie set. I half expect a phantom to float by, cackling maniacally, but the repeated flash of camera bulbs quashes my fanciful musings and we’re soon out in the open air again, looking down reflectively into the sparkling waters of the bay, dotted with Chinese junks, their yellow sails gloriously unfurled.

Royal feast

Awaiting us back on board is a midday feast for royalty: prawn and squid and braised cuttlefish, the bay’s marine wealth, as it were, exquisitely prepared and laid out artistically on an array of platters. Stuffed to belching point, I tell myself silently, “This is the life!” With no regrets whatsoever for missing out on the PS Emeraude, the celebrated deluxe cruiser that offers, to those with deep pockets, an overnight tour of five-star bliss, along with the bay’s flamboyant sunsets and delicately tinted dawns. For plebeians like me, the humble Huong Hai will do just fine, thank you.

La dolce vita is over all too soon, with a small, canopied boat arriving to transport us to the pier at Halong City. Then it’s a three-hour drive back to our hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam’s bustling capital.

That night, I dream endlessly. Of limestone islands and still waters running deep. Of mists and thunderstorms and man-made hazards that lie beneath, too treacherous even for Halong Bay’s mercurial dragon to deal with.

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