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Sunday, 16 November 2008

Finding Tranquility in Vietnam - Page 2

Written by Haley and Mark LaMonica
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Having spent three nights amid the chaos of Hanoi, we were looking forward to some relaxation on the peaceful waters of Halong Bay. After a quick breakfast with Ben, our travel companion and friend from college, we met our guide Cuong who would be escorting us on our roughly three and a half hour journey east to the coast. While we had spent the past three days dodging Hanoi’s notorious traffic on foot, we gained a new appreciation of the “anything goes” approach of Vietnam’s roadways as our van inched its way out of the city. Crossing the Red River — we left Hanoi behind, yet even as our view changed to rice paddies, we could not escape the constant honking from all manner of vehicles.


As entertaining as the antics aboard the boat were, each day we were eager to set off in our kayaks. On our first outing, after having acclimated to our vessels, we paddled our tiny fleet of kayaks in a relatively direct route towards the mouth of the cave. While our inability to travel in a straight line was a mere inconvenience on the open water, it presented more of a challenge in the cave as we quickly found ourselves ping-ponging off the walls as bats silently swooped over our heads. Although sometimes difficult to navigate and at times unnerving, by our third or fourth cave we had settled on an effective technique. The trick was to have the paddler in the stern while the person in the bow was responsible for illuminating our course by flashlight.


Tiny fingers of sunlight broke through the darkness, signaling the end of the journey through each cave. Emerging into the warmth of the Vietnamese summer, we welcomed the greens and blues of the lagoons. The smallest was roughly equivalent to an Olympic size swimming pool while the more sizeable lagoons resembled large lakes. Regardless of the dimensions, steep limestone walls encircled each lagoon, and the trees on which were supposedly the homes to a few lucky monkeys. While we never spotted a monkey, on one occasion, we found ourselves paddling through a large school of jellyfish. Learning that they were not poisonous, we reached in to the water to touch the slimy but surprisingly firm creatures. In another lagoon, we passed around a live sea urchin, feeling the points of the small spikes move across the palms of our hands. While the beauty of the lagoons was certainly impressive, the utter silence and seeming isolation of these sanctuaries was even more remarkable.


It may have been exactly this tranquility that distracted the two Cuongs from the rising tide on our final cave expedition. Despite the exceedingly narrow entry, which had required us to lay flat and guide our kayaks by pushing off the slimy roof of the cave with our hands, we somehow failed to recognize the effect that a few more inches of water would have on our exit. Upon reentering the cave, we quickly realized that even while lying completely flat, this was going to be a tight squeeze. The small spotlights from our headlamps revealed the jagged ceiling just inches from our faces. As the bow of the kayak scraped against the cave’s roof, we recognized that in order to proceed, we needed to submerge the boat with our hands rather than simply propelling it forward. Finding Tranquility in Vietnam, Hanoi, Halong Bay, Bai Tho 38, kayaking Halong Bay, cave kayaking, 2000 limestone islands, Vietnamese summer, Haley and Mark LaMonicaAfter approximately 20-yards, we reached a wider opening where we could again sit up and ready ourselves briefly for the next leg of the trip.



The more senior Cuong set off first to try to navigate the next low hanging section of the cave. Watching as he disappeared into the darkness, we listened to his struggles and began to wonder whether we would be better off backtracking and waiting for the next low tide. As we were mustering up our courage, our thoughts were punctuated by a splash ahead. Cuong had gotten out of his kayak and was calling for us to move forward. In light of the darkness, the bats, and the unknown, we were not reassured by the prospect of having to swim to the other side. As it turned out, this was not what Cuong had in mind either. Gaining leverage by placing his feet on the ceiling, Cuong grabbed the front of our kayak and yanked us through. While we were not yet out of the cave, the remaining 50-yards were comparatively easy.


As our eyes readjusted to the bright sunlight, we laughed nervously and recounted what had just happened. Despite the harrowing nature of our last cave exit, we were sad that our adventure was coming to an end. Unlike larger tourist vessels, our relatively small boat allowed us to gain a greater appreciation for the beauty and serenity of the bay by avoiding heavier trafficked destinations. Those visitors who confined themselves to short kayak jaunts encircling their boats had no idea about the beauty that lay within the island lagoons and the adventure involved in getting there. Finding Tranquility in Vietnam, Hanoi, Halong Bay, Bai Tho 38, kayaking Halong Bay, cave kayaking, 2000 limestone islands, Vietnamese summer, Haley and Mark LaMonicaAs we once again found ourselves playing a game of chicken with trucks on the return to Hanoi, we knew the relaxing portion of our journey was over. We also knew this would not be our last trip to Halong Bay as we look forward to continuing our explorations of its 2000 islands. Who knows what adventures we will find?


© Haley and Mark LaMonica

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Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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