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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Ha Long Bay: from the Pages of NatGeo to Real Life


Instinctively or intentionally, the giant creature known as the 'creator of all things' strew countless poppy and sunflower seeds over a bowl of water. With a puzzled look on their faces, his guests wondered if these were meant for the hot bread served on the table. Before someone could raise a question, dozens of graceful belly dancers entered the room bringing free flowing wine and soon the purpose of the poppy and sunflower seeds were forgotten. Over time - like thousands of years later, these scattered seeds evolved into thousands of limestone karsts spread over more than 1,500 square kilometers of Ha Long Bay. 

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I've seen images of Ha Long Bay in the pages of National Geographic magazines and countless travel books before, not to mention dozens of films. I also knew about its UNESCO World Heritage Site distinction. A few years ago - like mid-2000's I always see Vietnam as a world beyond ours. I told myself I need to explore the Philippines first before I set out and see Ha Long Bay outside of the fine prints of a glossy magazine page.

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Fast forward to December of last year, I found myself in the cold streets of Hanoi with temperatures hanging around 8 - 10 degrees Celsius. It was so cold I have to wear two layers of cool t-shirts I bought just before I left and a thick My Philippines Jacket. A few have told me that winter ain't the best time to see Ha Long Bay. The thick fog that enveloped the bay during the first minutes of our sail along the bay proved their advice correct. However, there was that scintillating feeling of being chilled by the cold wind as I stare at the many distant limestone karsts. 

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One of my 'junk' mates, a Canadian who might have noticed my uneasiness at the cold. Told me "I traveled halfway around the world to escape from the cold, didn't know it was this cold here". Still, he assures us that it doesn't hold a candle to the coldest day he experienced in Canada. "I remember I was at school when the coldest day on Earth happened, it was negative 40 degrees". While I doubt at his 'coldest day' claim, I am glad I don't live at that part of the Earth.

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Our junk boat may look like a beaten crap dating back to the Vietnam War on the outside, but inside it is elegantly designed with dark brown wooden interiors and fine Victorian chairs and tables complimenting a simple Oriental architecture. Since I was the only one not part of a couple, my junk mates were composed of a Spanish couple, an English couple, a Malaysian couple (whom the Western travelers keep on referring to as "the Chinese couple"), and a bromantic couple from Canada and Denmark, I was assigned to a cabin room all by myself.

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The room was surprisingly a little bigger than what I expected, it has two single beds separated by a small table and a cramped up shower room with hot water. The package I got for this Ha Long Bay tour which costs around $72.00 was prepared by my Vietnamese friend Hoang. who works at a Sihn Cafe Tourist branch. I know you might say that it's a bit expensive for a two-day shindig. But considering the place, all the meals covered, tour guide fee, bus transfer from Hanoi and back and the overnight accommodation aboard the iconic 'junk boats' of Ha Long, I find the amount just and fair.  
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Our tour guide whose name I forgot but I would address here as Nguyen was very friendly and speaks better English than me. When he found out that I was going to Sapa next, he showed me the images from the internet of the snow that fell on Sapa the day before. "You're lucky you are going there with Snow right now". As our junk boat sailed a line towards the inner congregation of crowded limestone karsts we stopped at Titov island to climb hundreds of steps to a view deck that afforded us a magnificent scenery of Ha Long Bay.

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A kick-ass 360 degree scenery that reminded me of Matinloc Shrine in El Nido, greeted my huffing and puffing self at the top. Winter or not, I figured there aren't a day that visiting Halong Bay is a bad idea. Not soon afterward, it suddenly dawned on me those moments when I just read and see Ha Long Bay only on television and magazines, I finally appreciated that moment when I finally tore the photographs of this place out of my memory and replaced it with moving images complete with the cold sensation of the stinging cold.

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Our last stop-over was an incursion inside Dau Go cave, during the night we played card games and exchanged travel stories. Being one of the most well-traveled person in my clan, my travel experiences pales in comparison with my 'junk' mates'. I listened and was eventually inspired by their tales of being on the road and right there, as we bid the night while getting drunk on the free wine offered to us by our tour guide Nguyen, we toasted and celebrated with wide smiles on our faces. But for me, I felt extra gratitude of just having the chance to see Ha Long Bay up close.



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