“You have to see Halong Bay”.
I was told this when I mentioned that I was going to Vietnam. And I suppose that's true, you have to visit Halong Bay. There are, however numerous obstacles that you will need to overcome before you can get to visit Halong Bay. Firstly, there is the problem of being organised. Organised in the get yourself onto one of the many arranged trips. That in itself isn't of course a problem, from Hanoi, there's so many people trying to sell you a trip to just about everywhere else in Vietnam it's actually quite hard not to. The problem is that you have to be Organised. Organised in the rigidly arranged and microscopically scheduled kind of way – hardly ideal.
Our guide told us he was called Mr. T and that he was twenty six. I have no reason to doubt him, except he looked a lot younger than twenty six………
As a travel guide Mr. T was entertaining, very interesting and ruthless organised. The bus ride from Hanoi to Halong Bay passed uneventfully, apart from me loosing my iPhone that is, and we arrived at Halong Bay to the exact minute, no doubt.
The Halong Bay waterfront is now packed with tourist boats, largish wooden built boats around 30m long and very well equipped they are too. Our cabin was beautifully appointed and very comfortable it even had air conditioning. The boats that ply Halong Bay today still carry a slight resemblance to the fishing junks that once fished here. Their high bows, which look elegant and entirely practical on a working junk, looking a little out of proportion with the rather bulbous midships designed for a cargo of tourists, Some of these tourist boats even sported vestigial sails as if to claim a working heritage. Much as an Eton educated elite politician might slip a few working class expressions into speech to establish some 'working class' credibility – it also feels equally as phoney.
Halong Bay is extraordinarily beautiful. Our vessel slipped through the water and the stark shapes of the very steep sided islands, laden with vegetation slowly revealed themselves as they materialised out of the haze. Boats on benign calm waters are always delightful and here in the Asian heat, amongst these ethereal islands which float in an almost Tolkienesque haze it completely seduces you. With its gently understated haunting beauty. It's very easy to imagine yourself being carried over the waters to Lorthlorien, or somewhere similar.
It is just as well that you can imagine this so easily, because your boat is amongst a hundred others. A hundred other boats all heading for that same deserted magical anchorage for the night, where you will all be peacefully rocked to sleep by gentle waves caressing your ship, and all hoping that the karaoke on the other boats isn't too loud.
We're none of us nineteenth century travellers. We're not plying the waters of Halong Bay on a fisherman's junk and seeing the beauty through western eyes for the first time. Being born in the nineteenth century, very few of us would have had the means or the fortitude to have embarked on such a journey. Nor indeed the luck to survive the privations. We are all now twenty first century travellers – and there's many of us.
Halong Bay is a beautiful resource to be exploited, and that is indeed what's happening. The tourism is controlled – to a certain extent. The boats numbers are controlled, although you wouldn't immediately think so. The crowded anchorages are an inevitable consequence of restricting where tourist boats can go. Halong Bay is still beautiful, sitting on deck as the sun sets as the tropical darkness quickly envelopes the scene is wonderful. Even the other boats add to the magic as their lights reflect and twinkle across the black waters. Mercifully the karaoke held off.
Of course, Halong Bay is to be enjoyed and why not? It is a resource for a developing nation to use to generate foreign exchange and that should be done, but done wisely. Everywhere you look in Halong bay you will find floating plastic debris, a sight made worse by the apparent indifference to this pollution. In many places the iridescent mauves and cyans from a film of light oil can be seen glistening on the surface. There's not enough there to detract from the natural beauty of the place, not yet at any rate. It does, however leave an uneasy feeling, like you're contributing to the destruction of a beautiful place.
I have high hopes for Vietnam, I'm sure that this is a problem that will be tackled. Halong Bay is a magical place; Alison and I, kayaking between two islands as the sun was setting was sublime. For it to remain so in the future will require tighter controls, more stringent enforcing of the current ones and, let's be honest here, higher standards of organisation………
Halong Bay is still a special place, for now at least.