It was raining by the time I woke up early in the morning. The light rain got bigger. Elvis and I had scheduled a visit to the Halong Bay this day since the application for permission to bring the car into Vietnam was with the Ministry of Transportation and would take at least a day to process it. Rain and foul weather, we thought, will play spoilsport with the plans. We had to reach the pickup point for the tour at 8 am, so we reached the restaurant for breakfast at 6.45 am to find the place swarming with tourists, who were evidently checking out. The buffet items had already vanished in the 15 minutes that the restaurant was open! We ate what we could and waited for a taxi to take us to the pickup point. We have not had to wait for more than 5 minutes the days preceding this before a taxi coasted by. However, this day was different. It was raining and a local festival was in progress. In the end, after much waiting, the hotel which had booked our tour sent two young guys on mobikes to pick us up from the hotel and drop us in front of the Opera House, where the tour bus was waiting. We had been late by about 45 minutes. We apologised profusely to the other 9 tourists whose time we had wasted.
Nick, the ‘English’ name by which the tour guide introduced himself, was a lively young chap – 24 years, he said – who gave us a brief roundup of the history of Vietnam and that of Halong Bay. He told us how the country had been under Chinese dominion for nearly 1000 years, how they got their independence, the fights they had with their neighbours, the North South war, the horrendous war with the US and the one with China in 1978. He said that all this may give the feeling that the Vietnamese are a country of war mongers, but actually all the wars have been only to defend their positions. 80 per cent of the people depend on agriculture in some form – the vast rice fields and vegetable cultivation on the way to Halong Bay reinforced this. People even subsist on $50 a month by selling their farm produce on the streets and roads frequented by tourists. Buddhism and atheism are the major belief systems among the people. Nick said that honking was acceptable as the mobikers did not where they were going or where they are coming from – of course, an exaggeration to illustrate the chaos on the roads.
During the slow drive through what looked like villages and small towns Nick explained the legends attached to Halong Bay. Ha Long, in local language, means ‘descending dragon’. When Vietnam was developing as a country she had to fight against invaders. The gods sent a family of dragons to protect local people. The dragons spat out jewels and jade that turned into islands and islets that dot the bay, which linked together to form a great wall to defend the country. Magically numerous rock mountains would appear and disappear causing untold loss and misery to the sea faring invaders. Once the war was over, the family of dragons decided to live on in the bay. The place where the mother dragon descended came to be known as Ha long
By about a half past noon we reached the bay area. What struck me is the vast developments happening there, evidently with a view to facilitate tourism. The 1553 square km Halong Bay has been twice recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site under different criteria. The bay is a collection of nearly 2000 karsts and islets, most of which are limestone. The evolution of the karsts is estimated to have taken more than 20 million years weathered by the climate and waters surrounding it and is home to diverse endemic flora and fauna. Pre-historic man is supposed to have inhabited the area many thousand years ago. Centuries ago the beauty of the bay was described as “rock wonder in the sky”.
At the Halong harbour we transferred into a 50-seater wooden boat, where lunch was served as the boat cast off on the magical boat ride in the bay. The rock formations with dense green trees are imposing and I took regular breaks from the lunch table to take photographs. What I had seen in movies and travel serials were right in front of my eyes. Most of the islands are hollow with enormous caves. There is also an abundance of lakes inside the limestone islands. We docked at one of the islands to experience it. The tour guide gave us the option of either kayaking or riding a bamboo boat; the former, he said, would make us wet. After much thought, Elvis and I took a bamboo boat. The 45 minutes we spent going around the limestone island and through many lakes was a fascinating experience. Near the island are four fishing villages were a community of nearly 1500 people live. Many of them live in the boats they use to fish. The catch is sold to the numerous boats that service tourists in the bay. A superbly synergistic existence.
The ‘Cave of Heaven’ was the next to be visited. The large cave has three cavernous chambers that contain hundreds of stalactites and stalagmites. Special lighting enhances their looks and makes them look appealing and eerie at the same time. The tour guide kept calling our attention to various figures and stories that could be identified on these limestone formations. Small water drippings were seen making fresh stalactites and stalagmites in the cave. Borra caves and another near Gooty in Andhra Pradesh have amazing stalactite and stalagmite caves, but they are not even half as tourist friendly as it is here.
After the visit to the cave we took the boat ride back to the harbour and transfer to the bus to take us back to Hanoi. The entire time that we were in the bay the weather had held, even though it was misty, which added to the mystery of the place, as Nick said. On the way back to Hanoi, a four hour 165 km ride, the skies let up. It rained heavily. And it became cold. By 8 pm we reached where we were to be dropped off, near the St. Joseph’s cathedral. Elvis took me a local food joint that served Hue food, which is considered by the Vietnamese as the best in the country. The Hue culinary traditions demand that the food be served aesthetically blending food elements, colours and decorations. We wolfed down a beef noodle and fried rice with prawns. It was raining as we took a taxi back to our hotel.
The letter from Mrs. V’s company had been handed over to the Indian Embassy in the morning. However, the Ministry of Transportation demanded a guarantee letter from a government authorised travel agent. I spoke to the representative of Mrs. V and was told that the local travel agents said that the procedure is long winded and could take up to 10 days, for even a rejection. That was certainly a dampener. I could not afford that much time waiting for the permission. It seemed as if a car journey through Vietnam has to be organised well in advance through an authorised travel agent, much like Myanmar and China. Moreover, right hand drive vehicles need special clearance to ply in the country. I understand that smuggling of cars into the country is what the authorities are trying to prevent. In the process even genuine tourists get affected. I sat up till late in the night figuring out options. There are two I have zeroed in on. One is to travel back to Lao PDR and then on to Thailand and connect up with the original itinerary at Siem Reap in Cambodia. The second is to connect up with the original itinerary in Pattaya, skipping Cambodia. The final choice will depend on whether I can get visa on arrival at the Thailand border on the return leg of the expedition. Many imponderables remain, but that is what makes such journeys exciting.