Lying off the north-eastern coast of Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin, with its 1,600 tree-topped limestone islets and shimmering jade waters, Hạ Long Bay is the region’s most popular tourist destination. Benjamin Brown explores the region, getting a little more than he bargained for along the way.
Drowning in the cauldron of the sun’s rays, I sat gazing up at the sky, an unbroken ribbon of blue stretching out across the horizon. With the boat chugging along at a pedestrian pace, plenty of time was afforded for me to take in the charming sight of floating fishing villages gently bobbing up and down in the water, each rusty aluminium hut painted in vibrant shades of red and green. A dainty woman stood on a plastic stool, reaching with fingertips outstretched for some clothes strung up on a washing line while a mangy dog yapped and snapped at her heels.
The Water Babies
Countless generations of fishing communities spanning thousands of years have made these waters their home. Tethered together with ropes designed to guard against the elements, these communities are ‘close-knit’ in both a literal and symbolic sense. Entirely self-sufficient, until recently people lived permanently offshore, sleeping, socialising and even going to school on these floating man-made islands. Clearly at ease with a life spent on the water, it is almost as though the internal body clocks of these seafaring locals are in sync with the timeless cosmic rhythms of the tide.
Conversely, I am someone who is ill at ease when close to large bodies of water, and after only a short while of being aboard, I was already beginning to feel nauseous. I was just about to spew up the contents of last night’s rice dish when I noticed our earnest tour guide pointing excitedly at a pod of dolphins nearby. Swimming in perfect unison, it was truly an ostentatious display and one that only seems to add credence to the belief that mankind has an affinity with dolphins.
Nearing one the bay’s many monumental karst columns, the boat juddered to a halt as our cheery guide addressed the party to let us know that we were to all go kayaking. Handed a life-jacket and head torch, the activity seemed at the time to be more of a directive than an open-ended suggestion. I was apprehensive, to say the least. It seemed as though my cabin compatriots had all paired off with one another, leaving me to fend for myself in a solo kayak, having never been in one before.
Predictably, I got off to a poor start. No matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t seem to grasp the technique. You are told to ‘kiss’ the surface of the water, yet despite my best efforts what I was doing was more akin to assault.
Soon drenched in a tsunami of sweat, I couldn’t help but notice that the others were disappearing from view. However, giving it all I had, I slowly but surely begun to gain ground, catching up with the others at a bottlenecked entrance to an impressive network of waterways. I was red-faced, both from my exertions and the embarrassment of having been so far behind. I needn’t have been however, since looking around at the others I noticed they appeared largely indifferent to my struggles, something which only made me feel more embarrassed and inadequate. Why had I put in so much energy into what was meant to be a leisurely jaunt on the water? Was it down to some pathetic sense of masculine pride?
With our troupe of kayaks having to pass through a narrow, low hanging tunnel in single file, on emerging from the dark passageway I was greeted with the bright, beatific light of a teardrop-shaped lagoon. Surrounding me on all sides were dense, bulbous mounds of exotic palm trees rising up like a camel’s humps from their sturdy rock pedestals. Alone with my thoughts as I floated serenely on the water, the trepidation I had when I first stepped into the kayak started to dissipate, replaced instead by a welcoming sense of inner equilibrium.
After trading the waterlogged kayak for the relative comfort of the boat, I decided to retire to a sun lounger for a quick rest under an awning that mercifully shaded me from the searing mid-afternoon sun. Finding myself sinking down into that indefinable state somewhere between waking and sleeping, the sound of our guide An’s voice snapped me back to surface level consciousness. With a thousand-yard smile, An announced that we were to go for a swim and a snorkel in the bay. Issued with snorkels and optional life jackets, we could swim out to the cove if we liked, providing we were safely back on deck in good time.
That Sinking Feeling
It felt like the kayaking ordeal all over again. I have never been a confident swimmer, and even with the added crux of a life-jacket, the idea of taking the plunge did not sit well with me. With everybody else having already dived eagerly overboard, this left An and I as the remaining passengers. The pressure I felt at this moment to join them was immense, yet discomfort experienced with being in the water since childhood – and a time where I waded too far out to sea one beach trip – paralysed me from taking any affirmative action.
However, as I glanced furtively across at the crystalline waters below me, I noticed how bright the sun’s rays were as they reflected off the surface. All of a sudden, the water looked inviting, seductive almost, and it was in this moment that I imagined myself being soothed from head to toe by its warmth. As though I were having some outer body experience, mind and body went their separate ways, and I found myself jumping overboard and into the glimmering green below.
Limbs flailing in my oversized life-jacket, despite my best efforts I was fixed to one spot, as though on some invisible treadmill. Adopting a different posture, I turned on my back and started kicking frantically at the water so as to propel myself backwards. This tactic was working well, and slowly gaining in confidence I impulsively decided that I would swim all the way out to the cove.
With legs pumping, I caught sight of the shore and righted myself, the slimy sea-floor rubbing up against my bare feet and ankles. Dragging my entire body weight uneasily up out of the water, I realised how much the sodden life-jacket had weighed me down. Shorn of my protective skin, I was free to explore the cove. Most of the party were already swimming back, but I had only just arrived and was keen to revel in its tranquillity. Traipsing through the powdery sand, I felt every bit the modern-day, smartphone-wielding Robinson-Crusoe.
This fantasy role-playing scenario was short-lived, however, since looking out over the bay I could see a tangle of arms waving at me from the deck. Cue the second poor decision. Thinking that the life-jacket would only slow my progress and with a newfound assurance in my swimming technique, I opted to swim back to the boat unaided. The first hundred metres or so went fine; though I was tired, I felt in control. It was only as I neared the boat and became unwittingly sucked into a strong current that events took a turn for the worse.
Speeding to Safety
I was perhaps only 30 metres from safety, yet I couldn’t seem to make any further headway. It was as though an invisible force acted against me. Panicking, I turned again onto my back, legs kicking even more frantically than before. Exhausted, I could feel my entire body starting to give up. The force of the current was too strong, and as I cried out for help I inadvertently began swallowing salty sea-water.
Thankfully, however, this is where my knight in shining armour, or more accurately Bermuda shorts, came to the rescue. Within no time my lanky frame was hauled up onto the deck. Shivering more out of shock than from the cold, I earnestly thanked my sandy-haired saviour before being told in no uncertain terms that we had to leave for the mainland immediately. Most of the rest of the party had already left on a separate boat leaving only a few stragglers behind. Quickly grabbing my belongings, I ran out to an awaiting speedboat and jumped in.
It was an ironically glamorous exit considering I was floundering in the brine only moments before, and with a cool sea breeze on my back, my heart rate gradually returned to a stable, metronomic beat. I was oddly becalmed and, reflecting on the day’s activities, I realised that the journey had been transformative. With the slowly descending sun casting a blood orange hue over sky and sea, all three began merging into one single glowing entity. With body and soul feeling freshly reinvigorated I laid back, basking in the reflected light of the sun’s rays on the azure waters.