Friday, June 27, 2008

The legend of the soaring dragon

Hanoi was formerly known as Thanh Long, which means ‘City of the Soaring Dragon’. The legend goes that the dragon came down into Halong Bay and splashed its tail in the water to split the land into a million little islands so that hostile ships would not be able to navigate through it all and instead go down before reaching the shore.

Today we are going to see these karst islets for ourselves. We cross Long Bien Bridge on the way to the coast. The original bridge was built by the same architect who designed the Eiffel Tower and parts of it are still standing. During the American War (as it is known here in Vietnam) the US military bombed this bridge repeatedly and every time the Vietnamese built it up again. Apparently they only stopped bombing the bridge when US prisoners of war were made to build it.

Along the way pointy hats and water buffalo pop out of the rice fields and motorbikes overloaded with produce further add to the romantic scenery.

The limestone formations become more intense until the sea appears on the horizon.

Our little bus stops at the harbour where a host of traditional junks are lined up for tours along the Gulf of Tonkin. We board ours with only a handful of other tourists and sail off into a magical world.

In 1994 Halong Bay was declared a UNESCO world heritage site. I can’t help but think this is where the Vietnamese got their artistic eyes from. Being surrounded by such overpowering beauty must somehow inspire the locals to a higher form of craft than that of other Asian countries.

Soon it is time for us to do some kayaking around the National Park. Susi and I glide over the water as though it’s a smooth gem. The lagoon doesn’t sparkle. Instead it glows, basking the whole area in an ethereal silence. When I look up the limestone cliffs seem to be even higher.

We paddle through some small hidden caves. I find it dark and eerie but soon we enter into a small lagoon where the birds and the plants seem to be in their element. I don’t I think I have breathed in such fresh air, perhaps ever.

Paddling is hard work and neither Susi nor myself are very fit. So by the time we get back we are tired. We get into a different boat now as we are going to cross the open sea towards Cat Ong Eco Private Island where we are staying for the night.

We chat to our fellow travellers and enjoy a few local beers until we reach the island. Our tummies are rumbling and after a quick sunset swim in the sea we are ready for a feast. Small plates of Vietnamese delicacies arrive at the table: fresh and fried spring rolls, fish balls, stir-fries, barbecue prawns and fish, fresh dragon fruit, ah.

The crowd seems festive but I cannot keep my eyes open anymore. I close the mosquito net around my cosy bed in the bamboo beach hut and fall into a peaceful sleep.

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