Indochina 2016: Days 10 – 12
These next few days are going to be the opposite of the previous ones in almost every aspect. For crowded, read deserted. For dusty cities, read the great outdoors. And for terra firma, read gently undulating H2O.
We’re aboard Prince 2, a holiday cruise ship designed to look a bit like a traditional Vietnamese fishing boat, and we’ve just cast off from Quang Ninh at the start of a three-day cruise around Ha Long Bay.
Hand on heart, I’d never heard of this place before. Which is unforgivable as it would easily qualify for the much-disputed Eighth Wonder Of The Natural World. It consists of thousands of green-peaked limestone rocks jutting out from the emerald green waters of the South China Sea. Some are pointy, some rounded; some have deep caves and sandy beaches, some have delicate waists worn narrow by tidal motion. All have thick rainforest vegetation sprouting from their sides and top, and no doubt an abundance of wildlife within that.
It is one of the most spectacular places we have ever seen.
We’ve never been cruise-type people but this is definitely tolerable. We spend the day reading, sunbathing, chatting to our six fellow travellers (a French couple and an English family), or trying desperately to do something a bit active so that we can build up an appetite for the amazing six and seven-course meals the chefs insist on throwing at us.
Something like kayaking. We tried this once before during a 198o’s holiday in the Dordogne, with limited success. We never quite managed to sustain the paddle synchronisation that is a fundamental requirement of successful kayaking. Pretty much as soon as we set off it becomes clear there have been no miraculous improvements to our technique during the intervening years. We start competently enough, with both of us adhering to a strict left-right, left-right regime that propels us smartly though the water. But after a minute Carol decides to take a short break, and I paddle for two. When she resumes paddling it’s to her left just as I’m paddling to my right. As we swap sides, there’s the inevitable overhead paddle clash, as serious kayakers (kayakists?) almost certainly call it. Anyway, we lose the rhythm and have to start over. This happens again and again.
If it mattered it would annoy me, but we’re merely splashing about on holiday. Yay, holiday! Left, right, left, right, left, CLANG! No matter! Left, right, left, right, left, OH SHIT WE’RE IN THE WATER! How the hell did that happen? I guess we must have both pulled a little forcefully, for once simultaneously and on the same side of the kayak. We’re in life jackets and our camera gear and iPhones are in a waterproof bag, so that’s OK. The big surprise is suddenly looking up at everything. Our fellow travellers come to our aid, two of whom luckily have kayak skills. With a bit of undignified heaving and spluttering, we both clamber back on board and gingerly resume paddling.
The highlight of the next day was a barbecue on a deserted beach.
This isn’t the beach and that wasn’t the barbecue. This is Halong Bay’s equivalent of roadsweepers: people whose job is to clear up any mess left by previous visitors. By clear up I mean burn.
This is our beach. It just needs tables, a BBQ and us.
There we go. The food is stunning, even though it’s the first BBQ I’ve ever had without sausages. It’s about 38 degrees celsius in the shade and a dip in the bay does nothing to cool us off; the water is the temperature of a tepid bath.
Later we visit a floating fishing village, of which there are quite a few dotted around Halong Bay. The villages support up to 600 people and actually do rise and fall with the tide. We were shown where they, well, do things with fish, basically. Store them. Get them to mate. I don’t know. We also see the village classroom and are rowed about by wiry, Sampan-wearing villagers.
We also get to visit one of the caves. The entrance is way up the side of the rock; God knows how anyone found it in the first place. It’s pretty big inside, big enough to host a junk-full of people for a candlelit dinner, but without any of the coolness you normally associate with caves. There’s a good view from the entrance and, for those caught short, a ‘happy room’, the Vietnamese euphemism for a rest room (the American euphemism etc etc).
Sour and Spicy Seafood Soup
Chicken Salad Flavored with Herbs
Grilled Sea Clams with Onion, Celery and Butter Sauce
King Prawns Marinated in Asian Spices cooked on hot rock
Pan- fried Squid with Fresh Cream
Hue’s Royal Palace Steamed Sea Bass
Stir-fried Vegetables with Garlic and Oyster Sauce
Steamed Fragrant Rice
Tropical Fresh Fruit
Then, as something of a grand finale, they present us with incredibly detailed models of a serpent, an eagle and the junk itself, all constructed entirely from foodstuff like pumpkins and watermelons. The models were made during the course of one afternoon, displayed to us and then chucked away.
Back at the port, I do a quick timelapse while we’re waiting for our luggage, in the process breaking two cardinal rules of timelapse photography. One, don’t suddenly move the camera mid-filming and two, make sure your foreground isn’t some filthy rock-strewn tip. But I like the way one of the vessels seems to move sideways.