Monday-Wednesday, February 15-17
A mini-bus picked us up Monday morning for our three-hour ride to Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site comprised of over 3,000 limestone islands jutting out of the Gulf of Tonkin. Having heard others rave about the dramatic scenery we knew we’d be remiss not to add this to our destination list. So, we signed on for a two-night sleepover on one of the multitude of wooden boats or junks carting tourists around and about this bay.
About halfway to the coast we halted at a rest stop, which happened to be a factory store for crafts and souvenirs manufactured on the premises by disabled Vietnamese. The most impressive were the huge stone monoliths created outdoors…
out of a huge junk pile of stones.
Marveling at the techniques we also understood that regulations regarding workers’ health didn’t appear a huge priority as we watched jackhammering without ear protection
and grinding without eye protection.
Wondering how on earth they expected foreigners to purchase one of these statues for their homes, we noticed a large display board listing shipping details to major destinations per country. And, no, we didn’t buy a jovial Buddha for our garden…
Arriving at the cruiser port at Halong City we joined the other tourists milling about as skiffs exchanged their loads of previous boaters with new ones such as us. Within fifteen minutes we landed aboard our ship and headed out to cruise around the impressive vista of rugged rocks, many studded with green vegetation.
What we hadn’t really counted on was how cold it was. For some reason I kept expecting the weather to be hot and humid because that’s been my perception when contemplating traveling in SE Asia. Even knowing there’d been unprecedented freezing temperatures in northern Vietnam’s mountains I still held onto my expectations of heat and sun. It’s also how I made a mistake in telling Max there was no need to pack his long underwear…
But, just as our time in Laos proved my climate prediction false, so did our boating excursion. Not only was it not hot, it wasn’t even warm. And, throughout our cruise we found ourselves huddling with others in the seemingly unheated lounge ordering hot coffee and hot tea. Fortunately our rooms had heaters with our tour leader instructing us on how to turn them on and up.
Yet, the views were mesmerizing, in part due to Vietnam maintaining the pristine nature of this site. Other than the large number of cruise boats, the bay’s occupants consisted of a few floating fishing villages, oyster farming for food and pearls
and persistent women selling snacks and souvenirs to tourists.
To keep passengers entertained the cruising company organized several group events, one being a visit to Hang Sung Sot (Cave of Surprises). Discovered in 1901 the cave’s first tourists were allowed into the space 1993 after the constructing of safe paths and openings. The large interior, secure walkways, and lighting ensured this was my kind of spelunking.
Yet, I’m always thankful to be out from under rocks; and, like the other tourists we posed for a backlit portrait looking out over the bay (you had to climb a bit to get to the cave opening):
When asking our guide how Halong Bay was created he said it was complicated. He tried to make it as simple as possible, which I’ll relate here: over the past 500 million years the sea ebbed and flowed with underlying teutonic plates pushing and shoving, causing flooding, erosion and mountainous limestone build-up of over 3,000 feet thick. From 67 million to 9,000 B.C.E. mountain-forming and erosion created the features seen today in Halong Bay including the caves caused by water seeping through cracks in the mountains.
In the past 1,000 years the water’s become saltier and coral grew with the end result being a karst topography, which I’ve since read is landscape formed by the withering away of soluble rocks. If only time-lapsed video was available 500 million years ago… or, our friend Joanne U., a geologist who could explain all of these wonders.
The next day those who were staying for a second night went kayaking. Thinking of getting into a tipsy watercraft on a cold, gray day didn’t exactly engender feelings of ‘oh boy! what fun!’; however, since this was one of the primary reasons we signed on for two-days, I knew I’d regret not doing so. So, our great guide (Dan Dang Tran, who had taken over from the first one), Max, two honeymooners from New Zealand, and I plopped ourselves into two-person kayaks and pushed off from the mothership.
And, what a great way to spend time on this bay! Because our cruise took us a bit further than most other boats and due to our guide’s getting us up and out fairly early, our paddling took us through open-ended caves into deserted coves and back out again.
In one we spotted monkeys (later found out to be macques) foraging for their breakfast and sea eagles riding thermals.
Eventually we were joined by other kayakers enjoying splashing about as we all tried to coordinate strokes with our partners. After several hours it was time for our next jaunt, which was visiting Halong Pearl Farm, a saltwater pearl grower.
I was interested in seeing just how cultured pearls were created, especially since a friend of ours, Leighton Reeve, started a jewelry company featuring a range of beautiful items using pearls and semi-precious stones (http://www.theislandpearl.com). Pulling up to a floating platform
we were led through the process for saltwater pearl farming:
A two-year-old oyster is harvested…
seeded (implanted) with a small shell bead,
along with a piece of donor mantle tissue (the organ which makes the shell) from another oyster…
and, returned to the water inside a net (protecting it from predators), which is when the real waiting starts. For the oyster to graft (grow) a pearl can take from 18 months to five years depending on the size; and, this farm raised three different sizes (two shown below).
Basically, a foreign body (parasite, fish scale, piece of shell but never grains of sand) gets into the soft oyster’s body, which causes it to protect its soft innards by forming a blister or sac around the irritant. The oyster begins secreting nacre (a mineral composed of crystalized calcium carbonate) and conchiolin (a natural proteinto adhere the first layer of nacre to the foreign body). As the oyster grows, more nacre layers are added until you harvest the oyster and remove the pearl.
Okay, I’ll stop with the nature lesson but I do love the fact that mother-of-pearl is literally nacre, which is the birth mom of a pearl.
Even with this careful planning and planting there’s no guarantee a cultured pearl will form or be round enough for sale. Considering how rare a natural pearl occurs (roughly 1 out of every 2,000 oysters), being able to fake an oyster to produce a pearl is pretty good. Even then it’s only about a 10% success rate with the remaining sold as food.
This delicate process obviously requires a deft touch by a trained technician.
To get an idea just how delicate, check out this site: grafting oysters. No need to read it, only scroll through the list. No wonder they call it surgery.
Naturally there was a store as part of the tour, and Vietnamese are exquisite salespeople. They just don’t take no for an answer but keep coming up with reasons for purchasing their products.
And, they have all the displays ready to ensure you’re getting top quality:
These natural gems have popped up in other travels we’ve done. In Hyderabad, India, when we were fortunate enough to join one of our friend Noel’s tours (http://bodatravels.asia/newtrips.php) and in Doha where they use to pearl dive before SE Asia began their pearling.
And, no, we didn’t purchase any pearls to go with the un-purchased grinning buddha; but, Max did insert a light bulb being the tallest one around. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in trade for a big fat pearl… :) Leighton, here I come!
During our day we got to know and enjoy our guide Dan and the young couple from New Zealand.
The Kiwis had just had a huge wedding in Auckland three weeks prior (we know about Indian weddings now thanks to Noel’s tours to India) and were returning home at the end of the week. In speaking with them we discovered the airlines (Malaysia Air) had lost her luggage on the initial flight from New Zealand. What a trooper! She’d been wearing almost the same items for two-weeks straight; no trousseau, simply sweatpants, teeshirt, flipflops (with socks), and a jacket she’d fortunately been wearing. She travels lighter than Max, which is saying something. It was only later that night they heard her luggage had been located.
In addition to the Kiwis we met another couple back on the mothership. They hailed from northern India, and the six of us had wonderful conversations–from engineering a marina on a remote Fiji island to establishing long-term care philosophy in India–
as we watched the chef create a sculpture out of an apple
then produce a dramatic cloud when steaming fresh prawns for dinner.
Another six-degress-of-separation moment occurred when the Kiwis and Indians discovered each had ties to Fiji with the Kiwi bride’s family hailing from Fiji and the Indian doctor’s nickname derived from her spending some of her childhood there.
Returning the next day to the mainland we passed by some ships waiting for smaller boats to unload their cargo. Whenever we see tankers and freighters we think of our friends Joanne and Rod who are involved in the shipping industry. They also had just been in this part of the world recently; and, some other friends from home, Sharon and Dave, we’d actually rendezvous with with later. Halfway around the globe and we see familiar faces. Pretty amazing.
The day also happened to be the one sunny sky of our three days on Halong Bay. Isn’t that typical?
But, no matter, because what really counted is rarely affected by weather, only by one’s company. The connections we enjoy always give me hope that conversations begun out of curiosity about others’ worlds will lead to a broader exchange of friendship and understanding. And, in Halong Bay as in all of our exploring, the people–hosts and fellow travelers–have been spectacular.
Soon to come, a step back in time to Vietnam’s Imperial court.