Sunday, 20 January 2008

This morning we drove to Halong Bay, where we boarded a junk, which is a fishing boat converted to a pleasure boat with sleeping cabins. The Ginger has ten bedrooms, a dining room and lounge, and a sun deck up top. We were joined by several others, another family with two girls (one eleven-years-old, the other eighteen, we were thrilled!), a mother and daughter traveling together, an older couple, and a group of four guys. The skies were still gray, but it suited the weird scenery we encountered as we moved out into the bay. Hundreds of limestone karsts rose out of the water all around us, it was an amazing sight. A mysterious setting, who knew what adventures would befall us in the next twenty-four hours. We were only on the boat one night.

We settled onto some couches and got to know the other family, who hail from Sydney, Australia. Bianca was eleven, her sister Elena just graduated and about to go to university. We got all sorts of good advice for our trip to Sydney in a few weeks, the kids established what movies/books they had in common and had no need for us after a few minutes. As we got under way, we were served a fantastic lunch. I am definitely more daring than I was when I left in August, we all are. I ate prawns with eyeballs and long tentacles and squid balls with just as much gusto as the beef and rice, though Nate decided to go vegetarian after our meal. He’s a weird bird, he picks up a baby octopus off the breakfast buffet in Rome, but another day, a different meal, he isn’t nearly as brave. Not that he won’t try it, he’ll put just about anything in his mouth at least once, but a common phrase is “it isn’t my favorite,” accompanied by a nose scrunch.

After lunch we all loaded onto a smaller boat that motored us through a “sea tunnel”. We passed under a long, big stone arch, the kids gave high-pitched yelps and yips and admired their echoes. On the other side we found ourselves in a very quiet, still lagoon. A few kayakers glided in while we rowed in an arch through the still, green water. A motorboat made an appearance, doing a few donuts and exiting with a splash. After all the noise, honking, fast-paced stress of Hanoi, this quiet place seemed heavenly. I took a deep breath, no worries about motorcycle fumes here.

We went back to the Ginger, where we played a few rousing hands of Emperor. The mother and daughter came along and we split into two groups for maximum playing opportunity. Clay and I challenged them to Spades and beat them mercilessly. Alayna learned a new game called Spit that I’m sure will be incorporated into our family repertoire.

We landed a short while later on a beach. The kids removed their shoes, the boys zipped off the bottoms of their pants (Alayna had already changed into shorts), and Clay agreed to stay on the beach with them while I climbed the four hundred plus steps to the pavilion at the top of the cliff for a panoramic view. The stairs were steep, lots of huffing and puffing, but I was rewarded with 360 degrees of karst and sea. Far below, the kids and Clay were jumping in the surf and playing in the sand. I went back down to admire their shell collection, one with a living creature still inside and one without. They had found thin slivers of mother of pearl, bits of coral, and a natural spring that bubbled down the beach into the water.

Just as their collection was burgeoning on too large, it was time to pull up anchor and head back to the Ginger. We carried out the usual negotiations, the kids each picked their favorite shells, which will soon be reduced to powder in their backpacks as they try and transport their treasures. Our next destination was a fishing village, three kayaks were brought alongside the Ginger so we could kayak. Our family lined up along the edge to board our kayaks, along with Bianca and her dad, Peter. The lifejackets were one-size-didn’t-fit-all, Benji’s was huge. He could look out the arm holes, and when they put him on my lap it hiked up above his head. Alayna sat in the front seat, the kayaks were all “two-seaters”, but with Benji on my lap we had made ours a “three-seater”. That left the last kayak for Clay and Nate, but after Nate boarded in the front, a guide hopped in the back seat, telling Clay “sorry, no room” and paddle away. I guess we were required to have a guide. I guess they don’t let tourists paddle aimlessly into the mist and karst, to get lost in sea caves.

I was so sad, I didn’t realize what had happened until too late. Alayna had I had rowed a distance from the Ginger and it was heading away at a fast clip, Clay waving forlornly from the boat. He and the rest of the passengers did a dinky trip through the fishing village on the small boat that took us through the sea tunnel earlier, while we paddled our way around some cool karst scenery, before gliding through the fishing village on our kayaks. Benji got lots of laughs and points in his huge life jacket, shoved up over his head with his face peering through the arm hole. I was sweating like crazy, covered in his lifejacket and mine and rowing hard to keep up with the other two kayaks.

The fishing village consisted of many homes all along the water, some floating, some on stilts. As we slid slowly past, we got glimpses into the homes. In some, kids gathered on the floor in front of a TV, even here, in this remote place, there was TV. Mats on the floor for beds, no chairs, no tables, but TV. Women prepared meals, children ate them, fishing nets were hauled in and boats were docked. Twilight was emerging, we hadn’t seen the sun all day. The change from dusk to dark happened soon after we paddled our kayaks back to the Ginger, where Clay was all alone reading his book. Poor guy, I hoped for more kayaks in the morning.

Before dinner the kids played more card games, we got to know the other passengers a little better. The daughter and mother hailed from Chicago, the older couple from Washington DC, and the four guys from California. It would have made a great set of characters for an Agatha Christie mystery. At our table during dinner, Clay and I quietly debated who should be killed and who the suspects would be. After dinner the kids all played a few more rounds of cards while I took Benji off to bed, his lids were heavy and he was content to cuddle into bed with me and listen to a Doctor Doolittle chapter. He fell asleep easily, and I lay beside him, listening to his steady breathing, feeling his warm little body curled up next to me. Too soon, Clay and the other two came down, they squeezed a third bed into the tiny cabin (it was so tight, you had to crawl on a bed to get into the bathroom), Benji woke up briefly and dozed back to dreams, and everyone got settled into bed. The water lapped outside our windows. It is a lovely thing, to fall asleep on the water.


Monday, 21 January 2008

This morning, before breakfast, we were informed that there would be Tai Chi on the sun deck. Nate was interested, he convinced Alayna and Bianca to join him, and soon almost the entire boat was on the sun deck. In slow motion they moved their hands and feet, squatted and stretched, following the instructor with varied success. I gave it a try, but spent most of my time videoing the rest of the family. We’ll see if Clay is brave enough to include it on the web site. After getting our bodies stretched and brains meditated on the sun deck, we had a light breakfast while waiting to arrive at a cave now designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I love these places, they are always outstanding. While we sailed, the kids played cards again, then began building houses and walls with the card deck, balancing them on the shiny wood tables.

When we arrived at the cave, we all climbed up some stairs, then down again, into a world of stalactites and stalagmites. The guys from California brought along head lamps, and Nate loved borrowing them to peer into dark crevices, though most of the cave was well-lighted. No spelunking was necessary, more of a stroll on a stone path through another crazy landscape made of weird and wonderful shapes. In strange conjunction, at intervals we passed trash cans shaped like penguins and dolphins. They looked like something hijacked from Sea World, and made me briefly consider the possibility that Disney actually came and built this cave, that behind the rock was a complex grid of rebar. As we explored, I decided something this amazing could not be formed by human hands, something this fantastical could not be imagined by human minds.

Some of the ceilings were laden with the stalactites, in other parts it was pock-marked with large, round indentations. As if someone had pressed marbles into playdough and left the impression. What caused these strange formations? I had never seen anything like them. They actually looked fake, like the ceiling of a polar exhibit at the zoo.

The boat guide explained that at one time this had been a “wet” cave, meaning water seeped in from the outside, slowly dripping and leaving mineral deposits behind to form the stalactites. Gradually, over millions of years, the limestone hardened into something like concrete, allowing no more water to come in from the outside. What remained were drops that still clung to the ceiling, not heavy enough to drop. Over time, these actually made these hollowed-out indentations on the ceiling. When I thought about the time it took to create this cave, my breath slowed down. I felt like my heart beat did, too. I cannot fathom that kind of slowness. The patience of water. They estimate it took 300 million years.

The strange shapes of the rocks in the cave had stories to tell. We found a turtle imprisoned in the rock, a giant, an old man, and a waterfall. This is the place of fairy tales. I would have loved to be there all by my lonesome with a notebook and pen, I’m sure I could have written all sorts of fantastic things. I hope that the setting remains in my mind, that I will be able to recall the place, that it will make its way into my stories someday.

The guide said this cave was discovered by a fisherman who was climbing the cliff in search of a medicinal plant and fell through a hole. I tried to imagine what it must have been like for him, to fall into darkness. He probably had no light, no way of knowing the enormity of what he stumbled upon. Maybe he never ventured beyond the place he fell, calling for help until someone came for him. Later, the French “discovered” it, exploring its depths. Even they did not see it the way we did, all lit up. They must have had flashlights, or candles, that cast eerie shadows on the strange rocks around them.

It is a huge cave, we passed through many rooms, each one large and echoing, the ceiling rising high above us. It’s interesting, they have found no fossils in this cave, not even of sea life. So the water came only from the outside rain seeping in, not from the sea that surrounds it. There is a freshwater pool in it as well, but no evidence of humans ever using it. To think of the trouble they must have gone to finding fresh water long ago, when it was running through rock right beside them. As we emerged from the cave, I looked at all the hundreds of karst around us, and wondered which others held caves just as amazing, but as yet undiscovered.

We returned to the boat for a lavish buffet brunch, while we sailed/motored back to the dock. We gobbled up as many conversations as we could, it’s fun to travel with others for awhile and add some new thoughts and stories to the pot of family conversations. Upon arrival, we said our goodbyes and traded a few emails. The Aussies invited us to a bar-b-cue when we come to Sydney, we warned them our numbers may swell to nine, we’re hoping Clay’s brother Craig and family will be joining us there.

I wish we could have stayed another night on the boat, I wanted to explore more of the scenery. I wanted Clay to have a chance to paddle around on a kayak. It was definitely worth the three hour drive it took to get us there. We now had an afternoon to kill before we boarded our night train to Sapa, in far Northern Vietnam. We headed back to Hanoi, Lan called the hotel and secured two day rooms for us. Clay and I rejoiced, we’d be able to squeeze in a workout before we left and we’d have a place to shower. We tried to forget about the stinking clothes we’d produce, with no time to launder. We’d worry about that later.