Halong Bay is the most magical on a cloudy day

The sun didn’t show up not even for one minute for a quick hello. The sky kept its grey garments on, leaving a veil of bluish tones to cover the pieces of land rising from the water. The water presented itself a little greenish but also liked to imitate the grey tones of the sky.

It would have been nice to see Halong Bay in the sun. Yet, I am not sure if it would have been half as magical as it presented itself to me on those two days.

I had indulged myself, booking a cruise, and spending one night in the water. I couldn’t shake the pang of guilt I was feeling. Was I  deserving of the privilege of being a living testimony to such beauty? Likely I was the only one with such thoughts – everyone was amazed, surely. But I thought could I cry. I have been working my entire adult life to be able to afford to see the world. And yet it seems I won’t get used to the marvellous things I am able to see with my own eyes. Not through the screen of a computer, not with the background voice of a reporter on television. Not through the heavily staged and filtered photos and videos on social media. Simply my own eyes. Those are my feet keeping me on that ground, it is my skin feeling the breeze. It is my hair that is wet from the humidity. It is me there, and I can’t believe it. I still can’t. To the point that on that day I wrote in my journal how unreal it all felt as if I was dreaming, and knowing I was not.

The absence of the sun did not for one moment took away the brilliance of the experience of navigating the waters of Halong Bay. And I soon wished I had stayed two nights like half of the cruise was going to. Yet, I did not have the time. Only two weeks in Vietnam, only two weeks…

My photos do not make it any justice. The absence of natural light made Halong Bay mystical and eerie – but only for the eyes of the living. Not those of my camera. And that is all right – a lot of what I did in Halong Bay ended up being camera free. And also completely out of my comfort zone.

We were stationed in the less busy Lan Ha Bay and went kayaking. Well, let me say straight out that this was something I never did in my life and I knew I’d be terrible at – I simply have no strength in my upper body (or lower, but my legs can walk, and of that, I am always sure). I was lucky enough to have been paired with someone who was clearly a lot more athletic than I was. Especially because this was not a simple 20-minute leisure kayaking – this was a one-hour full of boating, with our arms the only force to make us move. The experience was physically draining, especially if we consider that I had just arrived the day before in Vietnam, and the jet lag was still going strong. I couldn’t wait for us to simply stop to admire the beauty surrounding us, and when we did, all of the tiredness I was feeling suddenly disappeared. Of course, then my muscles started to shake from the effort, and I was pretty aware we had to kayak back to the main boat. Yet, I was convinced. That place was seriously glorious. And I was seriously stunned.

Now seeing the remains of the floating villages was something quite sad and I couldn’t shake a feeling of uneasiness. The guide told us the government had forced the people out of the waters. Some blame UNESCO, which after claiming Halong Bay as a World Heritage site has forced the government authorities to keep laws in place to protect it. Others – or must say I – blame the government solely for wanting the area just to satisfy the greed of foreign investors, particularly for tourist developments.

The people of the floating villages have inhabited this place for over a thousand years, and for a thousand years little damage they did to it. The floating villages started by being a place for fishermen to sell their fresh catch, but these were quickly turned into residential areas as well. People lived, ate, slept, worked and even go educated here. The floating villages are proof of how well people can live together in perfect harmony even in the least convenient locations. It reflects the resilience only human beings seem capable of – imagine, exchanging the solid grounds of the continent, for the moving floors of a floating home.

And all was well. Until 2012 when the government launched a directive to force residents to move inland, leaving these villages behind. This sparked indignation. These people have been living there for generations – but the government was firm. It claimed this was for their own good – to improve their quality of life and ensure children had access to education. To me, this sounds too similar to the arguments of western colonialists a few centuries ago – who are we to force people to change their way of life? What is the right education? What does the quality of life really mean?

And then came the argument of pollution and environmental protection, which makes no sense bearing in mind the tourist exploration that is happening in the area.

These thoughts darkened my mood. Yet, it is hard to stay in those moments, when you are surrounded by a masterpiece of Nature itself. The karst islands and limestones outcrops remain mostly untouched by the human hand – the impossibility granted by our own physical limits, and I do hope it stays that way. To be admired from afar. To be inhabited only by the fauna and flora that were designated to live there. For some small animals, the karsts are all they have. I envied the birds, going from islet to islet, hoping to disrupt the life of other little beings, in order to be able to feed themselves.

There is a reason why humans had to be content with living in the water. But of course, not all pieces of ground escaped from the human invasion. And one of those I had the pleasure to visit – Cat Ba Island, the largest island in Halong Bay area. A mix of jungle, rocky cliffs and sandy beaches, this is a place many seek to spend some relaxing holidays and be in touch with nature. I cycled in the rain whilst the rain fell. And it was incredibly refreshing to be surrounded by such simple ways of life. In a way that I started to question mine.

If you are interested in doing a cruise in Halong Bay, I highly recommend the company I used – Vega Travel.

Love, Nic


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