We’re currently sitting in an air conditioned corporate taxi to Halong City, crossing the massive iron truss bridges over the Red River Delta. I am continually amazed, watching intently as our well-groomed driver, dressed in an extraordinarily expensive suit, frequently overtakes into oncoming traffic barely 100 metres away at record speeds, and reenters the stream of traffic in one piece, without even flinching. I am beginning to appreciate that in Vietnam, driving in these conditions involves a completely different level of skill, requiring constant 360 attention and lightning reflexes. Perhaps this is why Asians make such terrible drivers in rural Australia. I could imagine how, being used to driving in Vietnamese conditions, you could drift into a daze driving in rural Australia because everything is so ordered and there are such relatively fewer obstacles, until of course you hit a surprise kangaroo. I’m not quite sure what to expect from this tour.
Are we meeting up with a tour bus somewhere? Surely we’re not driving all this way in a premier cab. But it appears after a couple of hours of gazing into grasslands, rivers, and industrial estates, we’re definitely in the car for the whole journey. Even when the agent from the tour company calls me via the driver’s mobile, insistent that she still hasn’t received our passport details despite us having e-mailed it three times and faxed it from the hotel, it seems that even without the adequate documentation, we’re clearly on a one way journey.
Half way, we are asked to alight. There is food and toilet facilities here, and we will have the opportunity to stretch our legs and peruse some of the most professionally handcrafted souvenirs in the country, in what could only be described as a massive luxurious souvenir warehouse for tourists, which has visa facilities yet also accepts a wide variety of foreign currencies. Unlike everywhere else in Vietnam, where prices are marked in dong, all gifts here, except for in the food section, are marked in US dollars. I get myself a finely decorated wooden Vietnamese pipe, and a oil painting of a traditional junk boat mounted on a hanging bamboo scroll. I also purchase a small cylinder of hot and spicy ‘Mr Potato’ (identical to Pringles) for the ongoing voyage, but when we return from our brief shop, our car appears to have disappeared. Oops, I wonder. Maybe they’ve decided to get all official about the passport details after all, and we’ll be stranded at this rural outpost for a while. At least I’ll be able to get plenty of souvenirs while we wait, I think to myself. A shop attendant attempts in vain to explain to us that our car is waiting at the opposite end of the building. But she seems insistent on being followed, so we take the bait, and wind up in the car park next to our beaming driver, leisurely finishing off his cigarette.
The best part of a second two-hour journey, and we arrive at the main pier in Halong City. There are literally hundreds of traditional junk boats anchored at the pier, and a number of smaller open-deck seated ferries docked at the bottom of the retaining wall, transferring passengers with their luggage between their cruise junks and their transport back to Hanoi. Apparently, as the smallest group of passengers travelling together, we had scored the corporate taxi service, whereas the majority of the other passengers had been transported by the slightly less corporate mini-bus service. We are greeted by our Vietnamese tour guide, who grew up in Halong Bay and speaks quite reasonable English. He advises us keenly of our itinerary, and we set sail for about an hour or two, until we reach the spectacular limestone cliff-island paradise of Halong Bay. Images along the journey include a small city about the size of Geelong, which disappears behind a massive cable bridge on the horizon, and cruising past a fishing village. Here, a girl jumps onto our vessel from a little motorised wooden speedboat driven by her mother wearing a conical straw hat, and successfully completes the sale of an enormous hand of tiny bananas to a couple of middle-aged Queenslanders. Two couples, travelling together, share images of Ho Chi Minh city in the south, the beautiful French colonial port of Hoi An, and other exciting expeditions having traipsed through flooded waters in central Vietnam. This is certainly a very large country to navigate around. It is a long way from the North to the South, and yet it’s evident there are spectacular places to see in all four corners of the country. I am jealous, in some respects, that I’m only five days in Northern Vietnam.
We sail our course between the majestic limestone mountains before anchoring in a large cove with a Buddhist shrine dug into the cliff-face, and a massive cave towering above the lagoon. This is Hang Sung Sot, a giant cave with spectacular chambers lit up like a magical underground cavern in one of the Lord of the Rings movies. It takes a good half an hour to walk through these three massive interconnected caves. We and the other hundreds of tourists feel like ants here, walking back up the staircase towards the viewing platform at the roof entrance of the cave, as the chamber itself is so enormous. The view at the top entrance of the cave, overlooking the dozens of junk ships anchored in the cove, is one of the most breathtaking sights I have seen. Some of the beautiful old red and yellow sails, and grand bows of ships guided forward by their wooden dragonhead mascots. The cove is surrounded by a series monolithic limestone islands, and there is no doubt why this magnificent location is in the running to be named officially as one of the seven natural wonders of the modern world. We return to our junk ship for a brief trip in a kayak, trying not to paddle aimlessly in circles. A tip for newcomers to this fine sport who choose to sit in the back of the kayak: think twice before attempting to hit your partner with the oar in frustration for steering you in the wrong direction. You will find it is actually yourself who is supposed to be steering. So, after a a few tips from our helpful but concerned-looking tour guide, and a few flash photos taken by some highly amused Dutch tourists, we finally stop paddling in circles and gently edge towards the beach, for a brief stretching of the sea-legs. Tonight’s evening cruise involves some expensive wine, a dinner of steamed clam, roasted crab, squid soup and boiled shrimp. If you are vegetarian, anti-seafood, or merely prefer eating meat without having to dissect through its exoskeleton, there is a small bowl of rice, and a stir-fried green vegetable of the day, with some fresh fruit at the end of your meal for comfort. It’s peaceful after sunset, as the junk boats glitter in the darkness and become restaurants, anchored in a cove. Music can apparently be heard playing on one of the boats until 2am… must have been the nightclub junk. For the rest of us non-partiers, twelve hours of the most restful ocean sleep awaits.
A simple breakfast is provided (exoskeleton-free, to our great relief), and we all pile inside a wooden paddle boat, and sail underneath through a small boat cave to the other side of a spectacular lagoon. It is misty here, and the morning sunlight shimmers off the jungle vegetation, and the only sound to be heard is a Vietnamese boatmaster, whistling a high pitched tune that echoes throughout the lagoon like a scene from Picnic at Hanging Rock. A troop of monkeys swing their way out of the trees or clamber down the rockface to the feeding platform, where a breakfast of fruit is served. A few things about monkeys in South East Asia. Firstly, they really do seem to like tourist hangouts, especially when there’s food involved. Secondly, they are also very religious, and can be found making their respects at almost every Buddhist temple of the region, even when there is no left-over food (just scraps and empty drink cans for their amusement). Thirdly, they really do like posing for the camera, except when they are being cheeky and stand perfectly still until the moment they can hear your flash about to go off. This is a uniquely tranquil location, amongst the morning sea mist and glistening trees, where the jungle towers around the lagoon in 360 degree magesty. We make our way back through the hidden cave at low tide, into the cove where are junk is anchored.
By this stage there is the odd merchant, generally a woman in a conical straw-hat on a wooden motorboat, selling pearls, or snacks, from her small floating business. We sail back leisurely towards the pier, and sit with the middle-aged Queenslanders, gazing out at the ocean and reflecting on the bustling use of waterways in Vietnam, the efficiency of the way space is utlised in this country, where energy-use is minimised, and where nothing seems to be wasted. A proud hardworking communist nation is this, Vietnam. Nearly every junk boat in Halong Bay and shopfront in Hanoi has a Vietnamese flag. Museums are everywhere celebrating Vietnamese independence and its historic victory against America. Ho Chi Minh is a national hero… you can buy his t-shirt, or visit his Presidential Palace and House of Stilts. We visited him briefly in the mausoleum, where he is embalmed for all to pay their respects. There is certainly more yet to explore in this proud, thriving and historically fascinating country, but if you are visiting Vietnam for any length of time, twenty four hours on a junk cruise is definitely an experience not to be forgotten.