By Britany Robinson.
Halong Bay had dangled in the distant final leg of our itinerary since we had first arrived in Southeast Asia – marked with many circles, stars, and excitement. My friends and I were on a guided tour of Vietnam that crawled up the coast, South to North, for three weeks. Ho-Chi-Minh, Nha Trang, Hoi An and Hanoi had all flown by like a pack of motorbikes in rush hour and as we boarded our final sleeper train, we knew the finale of our trip – an overnight boat ride through the limestone cliffs of the UNESCO World Heritage Site – awaited us with morning.
We awoke to a cool overcast. The docks of the wooden boats that carried our accommodations were gloomy with fog. This was confusing to our sun-worshipping skin but we stayed optimistic as we boarded our creaky vessel. After a torturous hour of waiting for the crew to finish loading enough food and beer to keep a pack of twenty-somethings satiated, we finally began to creep out over the misty water.
The overcast never really lifted, but as our boat began to break through and the endless sprawl of limestone cliffs revealed itself, the sun became a distant memory. Halong Bay is a different kind of beautiful. It’s eerie and jarring with a mythical quality. The water is a deep emerald without the sunlight exposing its depth. The only thing we could see beneath were the occasional ghost-like masses of the giant jelly fish that floated by. We sat on the top deck, looking out in curious awe. I couldn’t help but wonder how easy it would be to get lost – each unique islet possessing an unidentifiable beauty that you couldn’t possibly describe.
The crew members, with glints of mischief in their eyes, had suggested we all jump off the top deck which hovered about thirty feet over the water. Heights AND giant, faceless sea creatures with the ability to zap your limbs, rendering you helpless in a sea full of more creatures – I personally hoped the group would dismiss this idea and opt for a toe dip instead. But no, of course – we shoveled away our lunches and with full bellies, climbed the stairs to jump.
Most of our group lined up enthusiastically, but the initial encouragement to get me over the edge didn’t quite work.
“Come on, we need the picture!”
Yeah, I’ll photoshop myself in, thanks, I thought as I peered over and caught another glimpse of a jelly fish.
Gentle coaxing quickly turned to aggressive peer pressure and I suddenly found myself standing on the wrong side of the guardrail, my toes instinctively curling around the jagged ends of our plank.
“One!” shouted our voluntary camera man.
I looked out above the water, focusing on the endless forest of cliffs rather than the distance between my feet and the threatening surface.
I closed my eyes. I’d take in the view next time.
A chorus of squeals burst out over the bay as five girls free fell into it. It was a long enough drop to be conscious of dropping and wish it would end and as soon as this terror was relieved and my head was swallowed up by water, I remembered the second scary element of this plunge and sputtered to the surface, breast stroking like Michael Phelps to escape the jellies. I made it to the ladder with an exasperated PHEW but as soon as I was back onboard, I was ready to do it again. We spent the entire afternoon climbing and jumping until the fear of the fall dissipated and we felt invincible to jelly fish stings.
That night, we calmed our adrenaline over a seafood feast and then watched the sunset over the bay. An old woman doning the common pajama attire with cone hat tied under her chin paddled beneath us, selling chips and cookies. Several beers later and we would deeply regret not taking her up on the offer.
We spent the remainder of the evening lounging quietly on the top deck with the night sky exploding with stars around us. The occasional voices of nearby boats drifted over but it was mostly silent and dreamlike.
A captain’s heavy handed knock woke us all up at 7am sharp. It was time to dock at one of the islands and climb to the top of the densely forested peak. As soon as we began our climb, the misty coolness of the day before was replaced by heavy humidity that promptly pulled the moisture out of my skin in drops that soaked my shirt. The stairs seemed never ending. But we did make it to the top and it was worth every drop of sweat that I left behind me. The view was just like the hundreds I had seen on postcard stands leading up to our final destination and I didn’t need a fancy camera to capture it. A shot from any viewpoint on the gazebo like fortress that crowned the peak looked worth of National Geographic. After filling up our memory cards, we descended the stairs and immediately waded out into the man made beach. There is no sand in Halong Bay, only rock. But upon the realization that so many tourists were slowly melting in the tropical climate, they dumped some sand on one of the popular islets, offering much appreciated relief from the climb.
This is when we learned that jelly fish in shallow water are much more threatening than those in the deep. Had we jumped on top of them the night before, we would have bounced off like Nemo and Dory in that Finding Nemo scene where Nemo escapes the stingers and Dory does not. But in shallow water, their sticky tentacles float invisibly at the depth of wader’s legs. After curiously scratching at my limbs for several minutes, I realized one dead stretch of stingers had stuck to my skin. We were lucky enough to not run into any live ones, but in the shallow water of the fake beach, the dead ones seemed to collect and stick to you like prickly seaweed. It was time to go back to the boat.
We all gathered on our top deck perching place for the last leg of the ride back to shore. The sun was finally out and we let ourselves dry off beneath a perfectly blue sky, relishing in the breathtaking passages between islets and waving at the children swimming around house boats. It was the perfect end to our trip and a must see, natural wonder that would become a favorite part of our incredible journey through Vietnam.