When the dragon meets the clouds, peace is at hand. Vietnamese Proverb
Listen well to my story, because once upon a time in a distant land there was a fairy princess named Âu Cơ. She lived high in the mountains and had a warm heart. With her abundant kindness, Âu Cơ became a skilled doctor, healing the mountain people of their sicknesses with endless compassion. But one day she was very frightened by a monster, who scared her so much, Âu Cơ turned herself into a crane and flew far far away to safety.
And where did her crane wings fly her to safety? To the protection of Hạ Long Bay, where the dragon descends into the ocean.
But good fortune also found the fairy princess from the mountains. Âu Cơ, in the form of a crane, was seen flying over the sea by the dragon king, Lạc Long Quân. Lạc Long Quân was distressed at her plight, and grabbed a sharp large rock. He hurled this weapon from the cliffs at the monster chasing Âu Cơ, destroying its evil with a single decisive blow. She was overcome with gratitude and fell in love with her handsome protector. From their marriage, a marriage of the mountains with the sea, came the people of Việt Nam. The Vietnamese have therefore forever been protected by this most beautiful place on Planet Earth, Hạ Long Bay. In English, the name translates to Where the Dragon Descends.
If I were limited to one experience to explain all of Asia to a person from the West, I would chose a two day stay on Hạ Long Bay in Việt Nam’s Tonkin Gulf. The topography is 500 million years old. The legends abound, and new stories suggest themselves easily. There are not enough dreams to contain the place.
My first trip, in 2006, was for one night. My second trip, ten years later in 2016, was for two nights. My next trip will be for three and I don’t plan on another decade interval, either. And if there was a practical way to do it, I’d stay on a boat in Hạ Long Bay forever, transferring Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera from Colombia to Việt Nam.
First things first. Getting to Hạ Long Bay needs patience, as the drive from Hà Nội can go anywhere from 3 to 4 hours, depending on road conditions (you can get stuck, for example, if there is road construction). I urge you to check the weather, as our cousin needs to make another trip because a typhoon shut down all boats. There are many options for tourists, and we’ve been happy with both of our trips. Certainly you can find others that will do the job.
But we were way ahead of CNN’s Anthony Bourdain, who luxuriously rented out the entire Emeraude, an old French era steamer, for his recent 2016 program on Hà Nội. We used the Emeraude in 2006 for players and patrons of Southwest Chamber Music’s first tour to Cambodia and Việt Nam. I’m suspecting Bourdain’s CNN advocacy has not hurt their business, but I can attest to it being an excellent choice.
But the Emeraude only goes out and back for one night. Let me urge you to consider a two day stay. You’ve come a long way and Việt Nam can easily allow you ways to stretch your Western budget elsewhere. Consider that seeing Hạ Long Bay defines memory of a lifetime. After spending two nights here, I am measuring my stay on this planet by how many times I visit this magical world of the descending dragon. So give it a thought!
Our internet search landed on the Âu Cơ as the best two night stay. Since you already know the legend from my post’s opening, the name is significant. With many old friends in Hà Nội, nobody made any life changing suggestions for a boat tour, which is a good sign that you don’t need to worry about going to Hạ Long Bay. Most all tours will pick you up at your hotel.
You’ll experience a wonderful itinerary over the two days spent on Hạ Long Bay. What the extra night accomplishes is important to know. You’ll have the chance to experience two sunsets and sunrises, and the second day allows you to get to Cát Bà Island and consequently further away from the more boat crowded areas of one night only visits. There’s a chance to swim, kayak, and go into the caves of Hạ Long Bay. The food is excellent, the internet stinks (which I think is an advantage), you’ll meet interesting people from all over the world, and the Vietnamese couldn’t be nicer.
Most boats will leave before lunch, which is a good idea. Your drive to Hạ Long is long, arduous and at times you can be forgiven if you wonder “Are we there yet?” But don’t worry, once you arrive to the shore, you can immediately see a good glimpse of the huge karst limestone cliffs that define Hạ Long Bay. Which make for an awesome and endless view as you shove off and then enjoy your first lunch!
Since Jan and I were working with a busy schedule with the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble, our time away in Hạ Long Bay was perfect to unplug from work and the internet, indulging one of our greatest loves, observing the slow change of light from daylight to twilight to sunset to darkness. Think of it as a meditation for the eyes. Once you practice this slow transformation often, you’ll be able to sense the color gradations that elude vocabulary. We enjoy cultivating these quiet memories. After all, music is about sound, and the yin to that yang is our yearning for silence.
Even on a special trip like this boat on Hạ Long Bay, human nature is predictable. While most people are napping, having a cocktail or coffee, we acted on our hunch that nobody would be on the roof of the boat slowly taking in the sunset. For us, we bounded up the stairs and were rewarded with a quiet hour watching the light change.
One of the great experiences of Hạ Long Bay is the stillness of the water. There is almost no sound of waves, one hears very little lapping against the boat. From time to time the put-put of fishing boats becomes audible, but that charming ambient sound disappears almost as soon as you became aware that it was there. This endless silence of the water makes the vastness of Hạ Long more palatable, as the hush establishes the staggering collection of limestone karsts into a stunning permanent relief in your memory.
At these unique moments of repose in Hạ Long Bay perhaps you can assess that, if you’re from the West, your journey to the East is fulfilled, if only for a brief shining moment. You are surrounded by yin and yang, the cliffs and the sea. I’d wondered for decades about Asia as I looked at the Pacific Ocean in California and what I would find on the other side. Eternal Asia, it’s languages so difficult to absorb, its thoughts formed without conjugation of past, present or future, its global sense of time, its hierarchy of life contradicting all of my learned assumptions about direction and intent. I sensed being finally at home on what, for me, is the other side of the world.
In the West, we go to heaven or hell. In Asia, no one ever dies.
Waking up on Hạ Long Bay was, for me, a great life memory. Our room was scented with a fragrant lemongrass infusion that made sleep easy. We woke up silently knowing that nature was surrounding us, protecting us, calling us. Watching the light return, the reverse of sunset, meant an early waking hour, no doubt, but with rewards worthy of the proverbial early bird.
Eventually the anchor lifts, the engines hum and the boat sets off slowly for our next stop, which will be the island of Cát Bà. We’ll glide out towards the Gulf of Tonkin proper, glimpsing the ocean before turning back into Hạ Long Bay to land at Cát Bà. And once again, most people are preoccupied with their breakfast, tea and coffee, leaving the rooftop quiet for the morning light.
As we turned toward the opening you see above, we knew we were again going into new territory. Here’s where, if you can manage, you start to push pass the one night trip. Hạ Long Bay is vast and experiencing that vastness is a great reward that takes time. The approach to Cát Bà Island is long, slow and dramatic, as you will brush up against the limestone karsts more closely than at any other time of your journey.
And, slowly, one makes friends on a boat. We were lucky that Dennis Ho and his wife, from Hong Kong, had taken a picture of us you’ve seen earlier in this post. Now it was time for us to meet Jeong Ransoo and his wife from Seoul, South Korea would happily take our picture. They, too, appreciated the morning quiet. People self identify in life!
As the boat turned, I felt as if I was progressing through a Vietnamese Wawona Tunnel, the magical portal to Yosemite Valley in the Sierra Nevada of California. The entrance calls one forward, you can feel an energy as the boat moves forward.
And as we dock in a safe small harbor, the only boat allowed in, we’ve been transported. And happy we’ve spent more time on Hạ Long Bay.
I’ll pick up the story of Cát Bà Island in Hạ Long Bay in my next post, coming soon!
When the dragon meets the clouds, peace is at hand.
How did the Vietnamese outlast the Chinese for 1,000 years, the French for a century, the Japanese during World War II, the French again, the American War, destroying the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and again the Chinese under Deng Xiao Ping?
A visit to Hạ Long Bay provides a powerful, resilient answer.
See you soon for my next Hạ Long Bay post!
Best, best, best,