Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
Even if we hadn't already spent a week in the bustle and hustle of Hanoi, the mist-shrouded limestone peaks of Ha Long Bay, echoing birdcalls and water lapping our ship would have been enchanting.
But by the time we arrived at this UNESCO World Heritage site in northern Vietnam's Gulf of Tonkin, we badly needed a break from the mad motor-scooter traffic of the nation's second-largest city, the swarming pineapple vendors and the ceaseless capitalist hustle.
Three days of swimming, kayaking and just chilling on the deck of the Dragon's Pearl, with drink in hand, were the ideal respite and one of the high points of our two-week trip to Vietnam in October.
You can see similar limestone towers in other parts of Vietnam; in Guilin, China; and in Thailand. But their number here -- nearly 2,000 of these mini-peaks dot the bay's 621 square miles -- makes this place astonishing. On the bay, the towers, which some call the eighth natural wonder of the world, are all you can see in any direction.
Legend has it that long ago a celestial dragon appeared to protect the Vietnamese from foreign invaders, spitting out great quantities of pearls to form the islands and the razor-edged mountains that stopped enemy fleets.
In reality, the islands -- from mammoth Dao Hang Trai honeycombed with grottoes to islets no bigger than boulders -- are the work of wind and saltwater on porous limestone.
The bay was home to some of Vietnam's earliest cultures, including Soi Nhu, Cai Beo and Ha Long peoples, and a key defense point. Several times over the centuries, Vietnamese warriors sank steel-tipped wooden stakes among the labyrinth of channels and caves, repelling would-be invaders from China and elsewhere.
Tiny isolated fishing communities still nestle against some peaks; you'll see wooden homes painted bright turquoise and orange that appear to float on the water.
A fascinating drive
My husband, Dave, and I chose the cruise of Ha Long Bay because of its proximity to Hanoi and its World Heritage designation. Still, the 105-mile van trip takes almost half a day -- Vietnam's highway system is still a work in progress and buses and trucks share the road with darting motor scooters, bicycles and plodding water buffalo.
Some users on TripAdvisor.com and other travel websites have complained about the slow ride, but I found the drive through this fast-changing agricultural and industrial region fascinating. We drove through villages where farmers had spread out rice to dry by the side of the road and young men were lashing just-killed hogs to the backs of their scooters. Along the way, we also passed brick kilns, factories and coal mines.
Ha Long City's harbor, a gateway shipping port supplying this fast-developing region, is on the dreary side. In fact, I was having second thoughts about this trip as we dragged our suitcases along a rutted path past rusting, crumbling buildings to the ship, a deluxe junk.
But once we were headed into the bay, the breeze and the view from the motorized Dragon Pearl's top deck, along with our "welcome" glasses of iced tea, lifted my spirits.
So did our cabin. Our room -- like the 17 others on the junk -- was small but contained plenty of amenities, including a king-sized bed, a minute bathroom complete with terry bathrobes and rubber flip-flops, and air conditioning, necessary to cut through the withering heat and humidity.
The first afternoon, our ship and several others dropped anchor at a deserted beach on the tiny island of Soi Sim, where we swam and lounged away the rest of the day. The water was calm and warm, but apart from the setting, this was the least memorable outing of our cruise.
Escalating tourism in the region, perhaps because of its World Heritage designation, has generated litter and pollution. So, here, miles from anywhere, plastic drink bottles and candy wrappers floated in the water and washed up on the sand.
A couple of hours later, we were back on board. With a school of silvery jumping fish as our escort, our ship headed northeast toward the Hang Luon grotto, where the Dragon Pearl dropped anchor for the night in the company of several other junks.
Before dinner, we hung out on the chaise longues arrayed on the ship's deck, watching as the peaks surrounding us turned a dusky blue and lights on the neighboring junks twinkled on. The scene reminded me of a cross between Hawaii's Na Pali Cliffs and Washington's Puget Sound.
Have kayak, will paddle
We were lucky to have gotten Tran Van Bien, a 27-year-old with disarming charm and deep knowledge of the area's geology and culture, as our guide. He was never far away and always eager for the chance to improve his English.
The booming tourism industry has become a magnet for university-educated, ambitious young Vietnamese like Bien, who has earned enough to move his parents off their rice paddy and into Hanoi. He hopes one day to visit his relatives in Orange County, an all-but-impossible dream even with his middle-class earnings.
Like other young Vietnamese we met, Bien hastened to tell us that he held no hard feelings because of the Vietnam War. That fight was between the two governments, he said, not their people.
We were also lucky in our fellow cruisers, an amiable bunch that included a French refugee worker and his Croatian girlfriend, a Canadian family newly posted to Singapore, and a young American teaching in Hong Kong, plus our German friends, Reinhardt and Inglelore.
Our two evenings out on the top deck, trading stories and watching night fall, were among the few times I relished being outdoors in Vietnam's blistering heat.
But the highlight of the trip was a kayaking tour on the second day. I had been dubious about this -- I had never squeezed into a kayak before, and we were far out in the bay, close to the open waters of the gulf. I feared capsizing, not being able to keep up with the group and getting drenched if the threatening skies opened up.
It was nothing like that. Bien led the five kayaks in and around cliffs and through grottoes, pointing out birds, plants and the cliffs where monkeys nest (although we didn't see any). The skies held, and when we beached the boats at noon on an uninhabited island, the sun came out in time for a swim.
As for lunch, think "Fantasy Island," that kitschy late-'70s TV series. Our table already was set on the sand when we pulled up -- with white tablecloths and napkins -- and although the white-suited Mr. Roarke was nowhere in sight, the ship's kitchen crew was busy barbecuing fish and peeling dragon fruit, a dramatic red cactus fruit with mildly sweet white flesh, for another magnificent meal.
In fact, all our meals were extraordinary. Lunch and dinner aboard the ship were multiple-course, white-tablecloth affairs that usually included soup, locally caught prawns and fish, chicken, stir-fried vegetables and terrific tofu dishes. Breakfast was a buffet of fresh fruit and baked goods served outdoors on the ship's middle deck.
That afternoon, we paddled some more, at one point passing a lone fisherman casting his net. His wooden rowboat rocked gently. A teapot perched on the stern. One large fish, Bien told us, would net him about $10, a good day's wages.
The next morning, our ship steamed to Sung Sot Cave, one of the area's largest and most impressive limestone caverns, spanning 12,000 square yards inside. The entrance required a short hike up several flights of stone steps to a spot high above the bay. More steps led into receding chambers, past humongous stalactites and stalagmites that resembled giant sandcastles. Here, you can see water at work, dripping from the ceiling and pooling on the floor in ponds so still and mirror-like that it left me disoriented.
That afternoon, we headed to Ha Long Harbor for the return trip to Hanoi. Back in our French Quarter hotel, as the horns of a thousand motor scooters honked outside our window, I realized the cruise had given me a different impression of Vietnam.
If Hanoi is like 4 million people on Red Bull, Ha Long Bay is where time stops, where the old ways of doing things endure and where it's quiet enough to breathe deeply and hear fish leap from the water.