22nd JANUARY 2019
My wait in Hanoi continues, although I do break the routine with a day trip to Ha Long Bay, which is probably Vietnam’s premier tourist attraction. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and features a scattering of over one thousand limestone islands jutting almost vertically from the sea. Myself, an Italian bloke and an Argentinean couple from the Homestay join a minibus for the four hour drive. First we pick up a handful more passengers from hostels in the Old Quarter, which mostly results in our driver causing havoc by performing U-turns in the maze of tight streets. Then the route out of Hanoi is busy, noisy and slow which is an ominous precursor to what I’ll be facing on a bicycle in a few days time. Once we escape the city our journey becomes uneventful, apart from a Malaysian girl sitting next to me who keeps falling asleep on my shoulder.
At Ha Long Bay the boat jetty is utter pandemonium. I knew it would be busy, but the sheer volume of tourists is mind-boggling. Three minibuses worth of people are crammed onto our boat. We chug out into a calm, silvery sea and make towards the islands. I’d seen pictures of the bay before which show dark green islands, dotted in an emerald sea under a sunny blue sky. Today, though, the colours have been muted under a humid, cloudy blanket, giving the place a more moody and atmospheric feel.
Our first stop is Ti Top island, where a warm, steep climb of four hundred steps gives you a cracking outlook back down to the beach below. A viewing platform allows for panoramic views of the surrounding bay and it’s crop of jagged islands that rise sharply from the sea. From up here I can see that the water is flat calm and has taken on more of a greeny-grey colour. Then it’s on to a second island and ‘Surprising Cave’ which was apparently discovered when some French soldiers had followed a monkey inside. The immense scope of the cave once you get inside the cliffs is indeed surprising, given that the entrance is so small. Almost as surprising is the amount of people in the cave traipsing along the man-made path in single file, like zombies following this one route through the chasm. Mind you, I can’t be too precious about the shuffling hordes. Today I’m one of them.
Our final island has a round lagoon in it’s interior which can only be reached by kayaking through an arched tunnel in the rocky cliff face. This tunnel is about one hundred metres long, with echoes bouncing off the rocks just above our heads as we move slowly through. Once this opening has been negotiated we find ourselves floating on the lagoon, surrounded by a circle of high cliffs and cut off from the sea outside. This hidden location makes me think of the secret paradise in Alex Garland’s novel The Beach. We paddle round the lagoon’s edge, eyes cast upwards at the cliffs and jungle foliage that tower above us. A troop of monkeys makes their way down to the shore as we drift past, which provides an unexpected bonus sighting before we leave.
It has been overcast all day, but the sun manages to break through on our journey back to the pier. The final hour is tranquil and serene, with the gently droning engine lulling us as we cruise smoothly through the flat water. Almost everyone is above deck by this point, watching a low, orange sun set over a series of pointy islands to our left. These islands have now been turned into odd-shaped silhouettes, while the last of the sunlight casts a golden, shimmering glow on the sea before them. There’s next to no conversation, as if we’ve all be struck dumb by the sight. It’s a magical moment with which to end our boat trip, although it’s 10.00pm by the time we make it back to Hanoi and the Homestay.