Dawn had barely touched the sky. I stood in the silence, trying to decide where the dragon had plunged into the sea. My boat drifted past islands and craggy cliffs born when the dragon of the gods, after gouging the mountains with his tail, plummeted into the sea. The foaming waves then rushed in to flood the devastation, creating Halong Bay.
Now these islands with their impossible peaks swim in a sea of emerald. Later that day I would find a floating village (complete with a school and a bar) hidden among the 3000 islands (or maybe 1500 islands, depending upon your sources). Elsewhere there are forgotten grottos, or islands with names such as The Two Hens or Tea Pot Island.
Nearing the town, however, any sense of the mystical evaporated. With all tour boats congregating by the
pier, the place is a typical tourist nightmare. Yet to discover the true Halong, I had to be brave and run the
gauntlet. Passing through the frenzy I wondered if this was where the belly of the dragon had scalded the land. It certainly seems so. Or perhaps his fiery breath so scorched the earth nothing of beauty could grow.
Leaving the gaudy neon lights and dubious hotels behind, I passed school children rushing home for lunch as old men sat smoking in cafes. Grandmothers rested on doorsteps, nursing a baby or two while watching the world pass by. Hairdressers plied their trade on the street, while a few doors away builders hauled bricks and cement to the second floor with an intricate system of pulleys and buckets (which looked remarkably like a stack of flowerpots). Some of the houses boasted small vegetable gardens.
After walking some half an hour uphill I ventured down a tiny lane-way, which opened onto the sprawling local market. I entered via the wet market, which stretched before me forever. The range of seafood is incredible – and largely unrecognizable.
A large covered area served as a food hall – large enough, it seemed, to feed the whole town. With nothing more than a small cooker over a gas burner, and her hair in curlers, a lady deftly prepared some pho (complete with the tiniest,
juiciest limes). Next came some thinly sliced beef stir-fried in a sauce with the most incredible aroma. As I ate her mother came to visit, bringing the baby. As I nursed the bub the lady in the stall next door made coffee. I was at first dubious when, after concocting the brew in a small percolator sitting directly above the cup, she thickened the coffee with a dollop of condensed milk. My fears proved ill founded. Perhaps it was the setting, perhaps it was because I hadn’t found a decent coffee since leaving Saigon, but this java proved one of the best I have drunk outside of Italy (or Melbourne). The meal and coffee (for two) cost less than five Aussie dollars.
Nourished and refreshed, I returned to the pier. After all, this is why people come to Halong Bay. My afternoon passed in a whirl of noise exploring the islands on a boat about the size of the African Queen – and about as sea-worthy. By now I had adapted to the chaos and, standing on the bow, I quite enjoyed the spectacle as our boat assumed ramming speed to gain prime position at any mooring. The bay resound to the thuds of collisions and the creak of wood as the boats jostled amongst themselves.
As dusk fell a cool breeze came over the water, and the crowds melted away. Before me stretched still waters, empty of all save the islands. A rising mist swirled about me, as if I slowly travelled back to when the dragon had plunged into the sea, and both myself and Halong Bay were new born.
(c) A. Harrison