Wednesday, 10 December 2008

karstaways ahoy!

We are picked up from our hotel by a mini-bus and whisked 3 hours east to Halong Bay. The mainland hereabouts had more bombs dropped on it in the Vietnam war than were dropped in the whole of World War II. (David has been reading John Pilger who reported extensively on the conflict.)

We transfer smoothly to a small vessel, which takes us out to a splendid wooden barque, rising out of the water like a Spanish galleon, rich in mahagony and potted palms. We are surrounded by flotillas of similar craft, tall masts swaying in the swell, and sea-eagles circling about and dipping into the brine for their lunch. We clamber aboard and are taken to the most splendid dining room amidships, large windows all around and the crispest of linen and place settings. More gleaming mahogany, followed by a succession of the most delicious dishes, beautifully presented and charmingly served.

We are 25 people, a flotsam and jetsam of Europeans and Antipodeans, and a few Chinese. I am allocated a cabin with a young Chinese girl- 'call me Flora'- from Xi'an, who is studying banking in Singapore. Lunch cleared away and cabins allocated, we hoist anchor, or at least the crew do, us landlubbers just watching and trying not to get in the way. We sail off into the bay, and what a wonder that is.
There are two thousand (David says three) karst islands studding the horizon far and near, in every direction. The weather is perfect, and the sea benign. We sail awhile, mouths hanging open with the beauty of the scene. We put into a small harbour, and are soon clambering up a hillside and entering a marvellous sequence of limestone caves delving deep into the massif, discovered by the French a hundred years ago. ( The only time I have done real speleology was in France a quarter of a century ago. No spotlit stalagmites then, or stalactites with whimsical names, no metal litter bins in the shape of penguins, or signs not to deviate from the path. Then it was pitchblack beyond the feeble light cast by the Cyclopean torch at my forehead, and very scarey indeed squeezing through tight clefts, wet and slippery, wondering just how much mountain there was above my head, and whether the mad spélélogue I was following knew the way out. Crawling bruised and battered into the daylight after hours underground, and distinctly depressed by light deprivation, I could have wept, and promptly consumed half a bottle of whisky to reorientate myself- which of course did not work, but seemed necessary.)

Then I am adrift with 'Flora' in a kayak, trying to keep up with the others - 'Flora' does not know her starboard from her port, and cannot swim, which makes her, and me, rather nervous - as we paddle about into the most beautiful cove. As we return to our vessel the sun is setting amongst the karst in a blaze of colours. We are soon having a complimentary glass of wine and titbits. As dusk falls the braver amongst us - (David has asked me to write that these are shark-infested waters, which is true, but the sharks are tame as tiddlers and only a metre long) - jump into the sea from the poop deck. Sublime - and I'm hoping my fake Calvins will protect me from unwelcome piscine attention.
Another lovely meal, making friends with two great Danes, Frederik and Rolf. In the waters all around as we prepare for sleep are an armada of anchored craft, twinkling benignly. And then to bed.

Up before dawn to witness the sunrise, the seen universe shimmering in shades of grey, slowly taking on colour. A lovely morning on the top deck, amidst the sun-loungers and the potted plants and a pergola for shade, as we cruise amongst the islands and talk to strangers. All beautifully organised. Memories of Yangste squalor and rodent terror quite exorcised.

Alas before we know it we are back in the bus, bound again for Hanoi and the drone and clatter and klaxons of 3 million scooters.

But we have a dinner date with Rolf and Frederik..................