Bay of the Descending Dragon

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Saturday, February 18, 2006

From almost the beginning of Vietnamese time, Halong Bay protected Vietnam from invaders. Originally, the bay was vulnerable to invading naval ships, which allowed easy access to the Red River Delta in the heart of Nam Viet. The gods saw this vulnerability and sent protective dragons, who spit jewels into the bay. These jewels transformed into limestone and dolomite formations that rose from its clear waters, creating a navigational maze: a strategic advantage for the knowledgeable admiral. From the dragons descended the original king of Vietnam, and the mother dragon still lives in Halong Bay, translated as the Bay of the Descending Dragon.

In more recent history, the bay has helped the Viet people to defeat the Chinese and the Mongol Empires, making Vietnam one of the few countries to eventually defeat every major world power that has attempted to hold them captive or assimilate them. The knowledgeable Viet admirals enjoyed luring invading ships through the maze of Halong Bay.

On two occasions, they placed wooden stakes in just the right location at the mouth of the Bach Dang River for their surprise move, the equivalent of a quarterback sneak in football. When the tide lowered once again, the admirals counter-attacked, sending the enemy ships back onto the ship-sinking stakes. In this manner, the Viet navy defeated both the Chinese (938) and the Mongols (1288).

When I arrived via hydrofoil on Cat Ba Island, the Bay and its environs seemed the perfect location to hide, whether a navy ship, a pirate, or two people leading a simple life away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Meet Ta Duy Hai and Ngot, the married couple straight out of Kung Fu Hustle. For two days they took Emma, Ray, and me around Ha Long Bay in their boat. Ngot was the wife in control, yet politely cooking lip smacking meals of squid with pineapple or fried bay fish with tomatoes, garlic, and onions. Hai was the unassuming captain, who always had a frendly look even when he wasn't smiling. We knew we were on the right boat.

It was our third boat. Emma, Ray, and I boarded our first boat but the captain was immediately in trouble with the police, supposedly for using small row boats to load us on board. He was whisked away, looking sheepish. The manager in charge quickly boarded us on another boat and, before we knew it, we were off, but the boat was puttering along, lacking anywhere to sleep, and about ready to be retired.

We decided to mutiny and jumped ship at the next dock, called the manager, and got a third boat--Hai and Ngot's Van Hai. The Van Hai had a deck on top, where we watched the thousands of islands, fishing boats, row boats, fishing villages, sea eagles, and changing weather.

The weather continually changed from cloudy and cold to misty to rolling clouds and sun to rain. With the weather, the water changed colors too: dark black-green in the depths under clouds to aquamarine along the sandy shallows to shimmering white as the sun peered through the heavens.

Along the way, we stopped at Hang Sung Sot, a huge cave high above the waters, and Dau Be Island. In one of the coves of Dau Be, Hai took us by rowboat into a series of inland saltwater "lakes" called Ho Ba Ham connected to the cove via caves and narrow channels. In one lake, the water was like a wavering mirror with coral feeding and fish darting in the late afternoon light.

When we returned, a group of monkeys feeding on a nearby cliff and the smell of Ngot's cooking greeted us. We drank a bottle of Vietnamese wine as the night clouds parted to reveal a starry sky. The stars reflected in the still mirror of the cove's waters. We enjoyed a still evening: the drops of water in the nearby cave even seemed loud as they echoed from the limestone formations surrounding us.

Ray and Emma were a close and witty couple and had been dating for three years. They were living in Australia yet embarking on a dentistry adventure, beginning in Hong Kong, where Emma met Ray's parents to celebrate the Chinese New Year and receive "Lucky Money." After Vietnam, they had plans to work in various places practicing dentistry in small towns, where dental work is needed and dentists are in demand.

We awoke to cloudy skies and rain, which Hai the weatherman had predicted. He navigated to another quiet cove where Ray and I snorkled around a small beach. Most of the coral was dead and few fish roamed the broken coral benthos. Above-water Halong Bay was spectacular, but I wondered about the ecological consequences of unbridled tourism, overfishing, and millions of people living around the Bay.

We tried our luck at fishing, but luckily Ngot had some fish already cooking so our ineptitude didn't matter. I'll blame it on the weather, the tides, the overfishing, and the dead coral.

Our last stop was Monkey Island, where the monkey residents were paranoid from years of human guests. Some humanoids threw rocks at the monkeys, others fed them bananas and other foods. So the monkey approached everyone with uncertainty, until Ray peeled a banana to eat, and he was rushed by fierce monkeys. Later, at the top of a limestone ridge, three monkeys paid me a visit watching me from their rock three feet away. I talked to them as they looked around at the stunning views (or maybe they were still eyeing Ray).

That night, the Kung Fu Hustle Family invited us to join them, so we visited their home, saw their family photos, and attempted to pronounce some difficult Vietnames words like Nyugen (it's not what you think!).

I awoke in my hotel room overlooking Cat Ba Harbor and its dozens of squid fishing boats and floating fishing village, deciding to stay an extra day to trek through the jungles and peaks of Cat Ba National Park. A group of four of us began on a narrowing road, which turned into a narrow trail by the fifth limestone hill. We climbed jagged limestone formations to the top of one of the crags for a view towards Ha Long Bay, overlooking the jungles we had trekked. The trek ended with a boat trip through Lanha Bay back to Cat Ba Island.

Before dawn, I boarded the slow boat back to Haiphong: I will remember the Bay of the Descending Dragon, the Kung Fu Hustle family, and my experiences fondly.
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lraleigh on

Re: monkey island
The married couple in Ha Long Bay definitely could have been kung fu experts. After living in Hong Kong for a while, they returned to Ha Long Bay. Their son was in the military and his brother was a general in the army. By contrast, they lived simply and anonymously on Cat Ba Island, boating tourists around.

If people stormed their boat, they could probably defend it with no problem, just like in the movie.

But anyway, it's enjoyable thinking about who people you meet for a couple of days and never get to talk to much really are.

So what did you do in the movie? Should I look for you in the credits?

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