Sunday, 5 July 2015

Bai Tu Long Bay: Here Be Dragon Babies

Bai Tu Long Bay, Vietnam
Travellers to Vietnam almost without fail take a trip to Halong Bay, and often on a guided tour with an overnight stay on a boat. We wanted none of that. While the breathtaking scenery of Halong sounded amazing, we were in Vietnam during peak tourist season (mainly Vietnamese tourists as Europeans more often take a holiday there in March or April as the blasted weather isn't so hot). We opted instead to see Halong's less attractive cousin Bai Tu Long Bay. 
Just north of Halong, Bai Tu Long's rock formations jutting from the sea are not as tall so there isn't as much hubbub - yet. Tourism has been slowly increasing, and one of the main islands of Quan Lan received electricity six months before we arrived. However, it was because of this relative lack of tourism that we decided to go through a tour group. We looked into taking busses there, taxis and ferries, but without a working knowledge of Vietnamese we would have been way overcharged and might have become lost anyway. 
After research, we dropped into the office of Ethnic Travel to ask some questions. (We chose this company above others as they boast off the beaten track tours where you get immersed in the local culture.) Luckily the staff were wonderfully flexible. We negotiated and were able to basically use the company as transport there and back, with a full day on Quan Lan Island by ourselves to explore by paying for an extra night at their lodge. We left the office contented. 
The van ride to Bai Tu Long was harrowing, but so is all driving in Vietnam. We were surprised to find that the tour group would only consist of us and two French ladies, with separate English and French guides for us. Our guide Cong was friendly and talkative. He explained that Halong Bay is now extremely polluted, but Bai Tu Long remains much more pure. The main industry here is oyster farming for food and pearls. 
We were able to briefly see the port at Cai Rong (pronounced Cai Zong), bustling with visitors and fishermen, the land stacked with little buildings. 
Oyster farmers were unloading heavy baskets full of the precious shellfish as we boarded the Ethnic Travel boat. (I should mention that I've always regarded oysters as precious because they're expensive, but near the coast here they're very cheap.) We slowly put-putted out of the port, narrowly missing some smaller boats. As well as gazing at the rock formations all around, we watched as we passed oyster farm after oyster farm. Cong pointed them out as rows upon rows of styrofoam blocks pinpointed their location.
The sea breeze sitting on the deck was nice and cool, but we couldn't pass up kayaking even if it was in the sun. In our tandem kayaks we initiated a race through an oyster farm, floated around an island with cicadas so loud they sounded like a circular saw, and watched a local fisherman throw a mine into the water with a bang for an easy catch. 
Afterwards we jumped off the boat and swam in the warm water. When Yannick pretended to be a shark, I swallowed a mouthful of water and it tasted just like an oyster. (The experience was wasted on me as I can't stand seafood.) Cong wore a life jacket, professing that he had never learned to swim but that he would be the lookout for jellyfish (fortunately none manifested). Back on dry decks, we were told the engine wouldn't start up and we had to wait for a replacement boat to take us the rest of the way. I passed the time by watching little crabs scuttle along a bamboo walking platform beside the oyster farmer's hut and asking Cong annoying questions. 
As part of lunch on the boat we got to try a new fruit: the rambutan. With a knife you cut the red feathery hide to reveal the soft white flesh that surrounds a large seed. I didn't much care for them and ate the pineapple instead, but Yannick devoured the lot. 
As the sun set the formations took on a different kind of beauty and the view brought to mind the myth behind these bays. During a ferocious battle with invaders from the north, a dragon came down to aid the Vietnamese with her children. They scattered great emeralds into the sea as defences and the enemy ships became wrecked. These emeralds are the rock formations we see today. Halong Bay means "descending dragon" and Bai Tu Long Bay means "thanks to the dragon's children". As far as myths go, this one is pretty legit, probably because it has so many dragons in it.