Thursday, March 20, 2008

Heaven on Earth

As we age, our criteria for a "heavenly" experience is more demanding. What may have transported us to seventh heaven a decade ago may leave us completely blasé now. In 1999, when I landed in Bali, I thought I may have accidentally found heaven. That notion went straight to the devil when I woke up one morning and found myself in Ha Long Bay.

We had heard of people who had gone there, and cruised, some on barges, others on frigates, and none on the
Emeraude. In fact, we probably were the first Americans to board this replica of the vessels that used to ply the waters of Hai Phong Harbor, in the early twentieth century, transporting the French Who's Who during their occupation of Viet Nam.

The Emeraude

The work that went into replicating that boat at the time cost US$2 million. More details about the vessel itself can be found in my journal called "Why the Emeraude". However, Ha Long Bay would still be heaven without it. As a matter of fact, after two separate cruises on the Emeraude, I now crave to experience it on one of the less luxurious, more authentics frigates that depart daily from Hai Phong Harbor.

This is more authentic and more Vietnamese

The fact that there really is no destination here is a joy. One never really tires at looking at the marvelous limestone monoliths which come in different shapes, sizes, and some even hold within their walls breathtaking grottos. We saw them in hazy weather, and in sunny weather and I found that the mystery and romance of Ha Long Bay is enhanced by the grayness of fog. Of course, a photographer's dream is probably Ha Long on a clear day, but there is a certain mystic quality to this world heritage sight when light is dim.

And they will stand here long after we are gone

As you approach the city, before you get a glimpse of the water, you can begin seeing these weird rocky formations framing the farmland. Oh yes, there are rice fields till the end of the world here. At first, they are not terribly impressive, but get progressively higher, wider, and shaped like some animals. In fact, the Viet Namese have dubbed a few of them (there are over 1900 of these in the Bay) according to their likenesses. Once aboard a vessel, and as the shore gets more distant, the quiet is almost eerie. The water is teal blue at times, at others it can turn transparent.

at times like a mirror

Because there are people who make the Bay their home, there will be areas that reflect what I call the "human footprint". The water is not as clean, but the houseboats are very colorful, and some are downright luxurious by fishermen's standards.

this is home for some

Naturally, when the Bay inhabitants spot the Emeraude, they all come in their canoes, and basket boats, some filled to the brim with all sorts of foods, drinks, souvenir items, seashells and some actually come to beg for money. Not the adults, but the children are made to do the bidding. We were told that the people who live in Ha Long Bay  are not poor. So I gave bananas, and whatever else I could find which I had brought from New York.

Chuck used to call this "Costco on Wheels"

There also reigns a surreal sensation of being surrounded by gigantic rocks jutting out of the sea that remind you of the smallness of humankind.

majestic and impenetrable

No matter how many people are on the ship, you feel singularly alone and in synergy with nature. The mundane and the pedestrian worries of the neurotic world have no place in Ha Long Bay. It's almost as if the limestones are laughing at you or showing off their staying power. You can wait for your breath to halt watching the sun set, or better yet, take a nap, have someone come to your cabin and give you a massage (which will force the nap) and wait for darkness.

the stillness is suffused in the orange light on sunset

Darkness in Ha Long Bay is total; it's intense and permeating. The only lights to be had are those on the curving deck; beyond that, the blackness of India ink could compete with the atmosphere. It's as if someone came and erased it all; the water, the rocks, the boats, the people, the sky and the clouds. Again, faced with the formidable, potent, relentless nature. Shall we have dinner now?

these chairs were right outside our cabin

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