‘Tornado Light’ – all afternoon!

“Twisters!” is an unexpected thing to hear where I live – not just because I immediately wonder what Helen Hunt is doing these days, but because I don’t read much weather news here in Vietnam (why bother… it’s either Hot and Dry or Hot and Rainy).

So when my mom and I did hear it, it only lent another interesting layer to our overnight daytrip to Hạ Long Bay, Vietnam, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, in June 2014.

This is an ancient place, one of the first cradles of humanity in the Vietnam region, and a huge, interesting business built on the fickle whims of Mother Nature.
Hạ Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and with excellent reason. ‘Utterly unique’ barely comes close to describing the natural features of the Bay and its sister bay to the East, Bai Tu Long Bay. This area is a flooded limestone Karst region, with arches, pillars and precipitous rocks forming 1,600-2,000 islands and islets, the soil having long-since been washed away by the sea over the course of 500 million years. Additionally, because the Karst rocks are so steep, human damage to the islands themselves has been kept to a minimum (excluding tourist and infrastructure development in the Bay area as a whole, which is humming along everywhere possible… but in a much more regulated manner in recent years).

We had ventured out of Hanoi for a night, intending to sleep over night on a Tonkin Cruises vessel, the Marguerite Garden. The air was hazy and overcast as we traveled the 4 hours from Hanoi on a small bus, but we were optimistic. There was no breeze to speak of… still and humid.

Our tour guide, Rocky, kept the mood light, making jokes and getting the 12 of us tourists acquainted. He was to prove invaluable later – truly an expert at his job. After all, we would be spending the next 36 hours together telling stories, exploring caves, taking in the sights, eating seafood, drinking beer, and hopefully not singing karaoke, but if it must happen, at least we’d be well-lubricated. There were passengers from the US, UK, Singapore, Australia, and the Philippines venturing out, and it seemed like a good group – social, but not insane, and a wide range of ages and interests.

 

Hạ Long Bay has been recognized in some form for its unique features since 1962 – it probably helped that it was in the north during the conflict. It’s been recognized as a UNESCO site and managed by a local trust called the Hạ Long Bay Management Department since 1994, which takes care to manage, conserve, and promote the natural values of the property. With some of the most outstanding forms of this kind of geologic formation in the world, and a vast array of grottos, caves, beaches, and forests, as well as a number of specilized flora and fauna native to the environment, a certain amount of care and guidance is necessary.

One common form of tour is an overnight (or two or three nights) boat tour. These are incredibly popular – Rocky told us that, on any given night, there are over 15,000 visitors in Hạ Long Bay (I couldn’t find an online tourism source to back it up, but given the sheer number of junks on the bay, I would definitely not be surprised if it was even more).

That is a massive economic operation! Ever since an overnight vessel sank in 2011, killing 12 foreigners and several Vietnamese crewpersons, the Hạ Long Bay Management Department and the Provincial Government (Quang Ninh People’s Committee) have been shifting regulations and oversight on the Bay into overdrive. New safety regulations initially caused a mass strike among boat operators (over things like mandatory fire extinguishers and crew knowledge of CPR!), but it appears that the reforms have worked as planned and positive word of mouth has spread, as the number of tourists continues to increase year over year.

We took a motorboat out to the junk, anchored several hundred meters offshore, and checked into our cabin. Mom had made the reservation only a day before, but we were very pleased with our cabin – it included two twin beds, a nice shower, and smelled like our family’s Northwoods Wisconsin cabin… heaven, in my opinion! They were equipped with AC, fire extinguisher, and lifejackets. I had never been on a completely wooden boat such as this one before, but this made me feel much better about it.

Our first order of business was to be shepherded into the dining room for lunch. Lunch was great – not remarkable, but I had a few things I’d never eaten before, and a pretty decent local beer. I’ll just get gratuitous at this point and show you a few of my favs:

I’d never had Elephant clams before! These were loaded with garlic
and green onions, and amazing.
The tofu in tomato sauce was actually my second favorite dish, behind
the clams. It was perfect – tofu is hard to do. This is also the local beer.
This is a typical VN salad, but I don’t think I’ve posted a picture of one
before. It’s chopped carrots, squid, onions, peppers, tomato, celery,
and leek, often dressed in fish sauce. I’ve come to enjoy it!

The menu on the table indicated the three remaining meals would be filled with local delights, and tons of seafood: we were promised everything from crab, shrimp, spring rolls, and curried chicken, to deep fried taro cakes, wild betel leaves with beef, lemongrass fried chicken, and fresh fruit. I for one was pretty excited. It was a shame that we never found out.

The yellow figure 8 in the middle of the bay are the two paths for Tonkin Cruises boats. The upper half only is the itinierary for 1 night, and the boats going out for 2-3 nights do the whole thing.

It was after 1pm when Rocky, bless his heart, dropped the bombshell. We were about to start learning about our trip itinerary when he had the unpleasant duty of telling us that there were twisters a-comin’ for the bay. Twisters!! The order from the harbormaster was that all the junks on the bay – 15,000 people who had thought they had a room for the night, in other words! – were to report back to the harbor by 6pm.

RECORD SCRATCH –
WUT WHUUUUUUUT GARBAGE PENGUINS?!
STOP. Our trip was over before it had barely begun!

 

There were still several hours, though, and we made the most of it. Our first stop was Song Sut cave, a huge cave on a larger karst that featured some amazing formations. It was clean and the pathway was quite even. The 45 minute jaunt through the cave was a relief from the heat.
Rocky was a pro. He handled what had to be a very stressful situation (the weather, of course, but we also had someone on board get very sick – poor guy!) with aplomb. The bummer of this for him, and likely most of the crew/tour guides in the bay, is that extreme weather and cancellations means no pay. (Vietnam has 18 labor unions, which are overseen totally by the communist party. They are not known to be especially effective for workers, and I don’t know which union,  if any, tourism workers fall under.)
Rocky couldn’t help but make a dick joke about the one in red. The dude was so cool and professional
while he dealt with multiple crises. Props to you, Rocky, I hope you become a famous actor someday.
We stopped by a small beach on the way back to the harbor for a swim. The water was reasonably clear, but the sky was becoming increasingly hazy and I hung like a damp towel.
Most of the tourist areas were well taken care of, clean, and safe – it was evident that the major legislative plans passed in 2001 (Hạ Long Bay to 2020, signed by the Prime Minister and detailing a master plan to conserve, manage, and develop) and 2010 (the Comprehensive Management Plan for the Hạ Long Bay World Heritage Site 2010-2015, issued by the provincial government) have been rapidly improving the environment and installing protective measures, managing tourism development more sustainably and effectively, and increasing conservation planning. A heavy hand has helped Hạ Long Bay join the rest of the country in their brave acceleration into a fully modern country, and it will no doubt continue to mature as long as Vietnam’s good fortune continues.
Management of an area like this takes a lot of planning, and the matters covered in the national and provincial documents are diverse and foresighted. They include:
  • Preserving the geological, scenic, and geomorphic assets and its environment
  • Monitoring carefully the socio-economic trends and activities in the Bay area
  • Bring technology use in site management up-to-date
  • Education in smaller hamlets and floating villages regarding the ecological/economic value of the site
  • Investing in research to better understand the natural values
  • Improving staff quality and capacity
  • Increasing levels of community involvement and awareness
  • Stronger oversight of tourist safety and safety education
Like a broken record: if it ain’t ambitious, it’s not a modern Vietnamese plan. This one is not only ambitious, in many ways it is realizing the benefits originally intended. As they continue to institute the two plans in the next 6 years, I wish them well. Whoever is in charge of this marvel is responsible for an awful lot of money coming into the region and country. It really can’t be overstated how much of a draw this is for Vietnam – it’s like Angkor Wat fueling Cambodia’s Siem Reap region (although Cambodia chose to sell Angkor Wat to a private company – Vietnam has, so far, more sense than that concerning its many ecological and cultural treasures).
The ride back to the harbor was uneventful – except for the gathering clouds, building winds, and, eventually, the spitting drops. We chatted with the other passengers and crew, took pictures, and drank mojitos (which were extra-strong – they were a great crew) until we arrived back at the harbor around 6pm… along with all 15,000 other tourists, all looking kind of dejected and having no immediate place to sleep.
Fortunately I’d screwed up my hotel reservation in Hanoi and I was able to get our room back for the night – it was a happy accident!
All in all I wasn’t too disappointed with our trip. Yes, it was such a huge, godawful bummer that it was cut short, but I did get a few pictures and we learned a lot. 8 hours on a bus in a day is a lot, though, especially when you were planning on sleeping on a boat (I love sleeping on boats).
I look forward to one more visit (hopefully!) before I move away from Vietnam – I think I’ll leave it for last… the better to see how far (or not) they go!
Have questions or remarks? Did you have a different experience in Ha Long Bay? Please drop them in the comments below!