Sleeping with the Dragon in Halong Bay

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Despite yet another chopsticks challenge, I give 4 stars for a tummylicious breakfast of pho ga (pronounced fa-ga with your voice going down on the first syllable then up on the next) or chicken noodle soup and banh (bread) with butter and jelly. I was prepped up for the four-hour bus ride to where the dragon descends to the sea—Halong Bay.

Also known as Vinh Halong, this bay is composed of over 3,000 colosal limestone isles each topped with thick foliage with an area of about 1,553 square kilometers.

We reached Bai Chay Tourist Wharf at 12:30 PM after an alternate bumpy-smooth journey and a 20-minute stop by a souvenir shop.  A trap, tourists on package tours like us have no way of avoiding it. The tour guides and drivers are connected to shops like this for commission.  Some are even vocal about it that they encourage the tourists under their watch to buy and support them.  Aside from them, some shops are tied up with various non-government organizations. Like the shop we stopped over in on our way back, it was supporting an organization of differently-abled persons. It does not only give a share of the sales to the organization, but it also employs differently-abled individuals. Heart-warming, right?

At the wharf, we were divided into two groups with our group composed of a German student, two Taiwanese sisters, a New Zealand girl, two young Canadian couple and two Filipinos— that would be my travel writer cum photo journalist companion and I, a Wal-lang IP girl of the Philippine highlands. Too bad we didn’t have Popeye for our guide. Yeah, the guide on the bus is called Popeye. Not that he looked the part but he is funny and “going by the name is easier for tourists to remember than his real name,” he said.

We were led to a white wooden boat that was SO not as close as the photograph on the Fantasea Halong Bay Cruise brochure that we were shown a day earlier. A closer scrutiny showed signs of old age already.  Tsk tsk! I thought maybe the picture was taken a decade ago and of course being in the bay for quite some time with the sea often rough in a country regularly hit by tropical storms, but no, it was definitely not the same boat. Even the boat name couldn’t agree more.

Opening the door to our cabin was a bit of a struggle.  I had to lift the door, turn the key and give it a hard push to open. At least I need not figure out when going out. And when it opens, it does until it slams on the wall. Hmmm, must be a revolving door without the wall huh. Quite interesting!

The room was decent. Thank God I had the bed next to the window.  A comfy bed, clean bathroom and a nice view by the window, I was ready to let go of the iniquity on the “boat photo” thing.

When lunch was served, I was like “Heck! I don’t mind sleeping on the sun deck if that’s the only place available for me to sleep on for as long as I get to eat “BURPfect” meals like these!” I give five stars for the food experience. And with a very friendly crew…I am just where God wanted me to be on board.

I lost count of the times I said “WOW” at the sight of limestone rocks jutting out of sea. While they all look similar, the beauty seems to transform at every turn the boat takes. My Niko in 3-frames speed went ballistic. It’s like missing out one good photographic moment when you stop clicking. Many tourists who were a day earlier in Halong missed the opportunity. I could imagine the frustration having to travel half way round the globe to supposedly experience the beauty of Halong Bay only to be marred by heavy downpour. We’re glad we packed the Philippine sunshine in our backpacks. A little rain and a bit of dark clouds on the horizon later in the day only added drama to the vista. By the time our boat docked for the spelunking trip, my 16GB SD card was almost full. I was not that trigger-happy, was I?

A few meters climb up to the cave lies the largest grotto found in Halong Bay called Hang Dau Go or Wooden Stakes Cave. There is a limestone formation that looked like a Buddha. Strange enough, while I was going through the pictures on my laptop, the shape of Mama Mary in praying position is the rotated version of the Buddha. Or was it just my imagination?

While it’s always an adventure to go spelunking in a cave where its natural state is intact, sometimes it’s also nice to have a neatly laid-out pathway to enable older folks and young kids to safely explore the cave with the rest of us. The tour of the cave is one directional hence people could move with ease here.

Of course when you are on a guided tour, there is always a time schedule and guides tend to hurry you up. If you cannot move as fast as the guide, inform earlier. In case your guide treats you rudely later, at least you know you were polite enough to have informed.

Back at the cave’s view deck is yet another splendid scene of the bay. Don’t miss capturing the dragon’s foot sticking out of the cave’s mouth. It is an interesting way to cap the visit to his abode.

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The Wal-lang and her travel buddy.

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Wacky shot with fellow backpackers from Hongkong. Best buddies travelling the world together.

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From the cave we moved to Ti Top. Here you can either swim by the beach, frolic in the sand or walk your way up to the top of the mountain to watch sunset in Halong Bay. Bird’s eye view sure offers an awe-inspiring scenery but be ready to walk your way up. It’s steep but well-paved. Then again, I wished my travel girl friends or my ading bunso were/was with me. A jump-shot at the top would have been very interesting!

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Our boat moved to a more quaint location to settle for the night. After a dinner that kept the food meter at 5 stars, games of cards with fellow travelers on the boat, 2 cans of cold bia ha noi and a serene view outside my window, I doze off, waking up from time to time making sure I do not miss sunrise. Sleeping on the deck would have been interesting and a sure way to not miss sunrise, but I had enough insect bites to endure already. And I was glad I did not as my companion scampered back to the cabin at 03:00 AM because it was drizzling.

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I went up the sun deck at 5:30 and a crew was still sleeping by the deck when I got there. I wonder how he endured the drizzle and the chilly air with only a thin blanket. Making sure I don’t disturb his sleep, I tiptoed, but given the state of the boat, there was no way the planks will not creak.

A grand sunrise never arrived, only a faint attempt. I had to settle for a muffled orange hue painting the horizon for half an hour. Still I was blessed to have such a nice and quiet morning in the midst of thousands of limestone formations. Was the dragon watching? Maybe!  And hopefully next time, the dragon will let me experience a better sunrise, perhaps a romantic one! Teehee!

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After breakfast was an opportunity for kayaking and I was ecstatic. My girl friends and I were not able to experience this on our dhow cruise trip on my birthday in Musandam, Oman so this time, I’ll definitely not let it pass again without trying it. Thanks to Jasper, the German student, who was my partner on the boat. He was kind enough to tell me what to do when I seem to be pushing or rowing the wrong way. And from someone who’s used to kayaking, I wasn’t bad for a first timer. Awesome!

We first rowed to where monkeys were running and jumping behind rocks. Closer to the rocks, there were two young monkeys wrestling and on the other end was a mama monkey with her baby. They just looked at us like it’s normal to have “aliens” watching them. The trees above were moving. Not because of the wind but monkeys leaping from one branch to the other. They slip, they leap, and they flip. It’s like watching a circus in a natural setting for free. Then comes the best part of the monkey show.  The mama monkey was eating something and it got stuck in her throat. She kept trying to throw it up for about 5 minutes while her baby kept whining below the rock where she was seated. When she finally got it out, she scrutinized it and popped it back to her mouth. Gross but that was quite a show.

Paddling into a cave, we found ourselves in the middle of a more serene and enchanting setting. It was quiet, except for birds chirping. If only time allowed it, I would have loved to stay there longer. I just wished I dared bringing Niko with me. But yeah, some special moments are not meant to be shared. They are best locked up in your memory, in your heart, which only you can relish anytime, anywhere.

After checking-out of our cabins, we realized there were only 5 of us left on the boat. The Canadians and the New Zealand students transferred to another boat as they were on a 3-day tour. An uncrowded boat became more uncrowded. I really am on the right boat.

The sky cleared up as the day progressed and the boat toured us to more limestone formations with the cockfight formation as the highlight. It wasn’t much, just 2 smaller rocks forming the shape of 2 roosters fighting.

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The happy travelers and their young Vietnamese Chef!

Back at the wharf I was happy to have ended another trip with good memories, “burpfect” meals, hearty laughters, new friends and  20 GB of photos, sealing our Halong Bay experience with a “class” photo.

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