At this time of year the majority of holiday-makers typically choose to while away the days on the beautiful beaches of Nha Trang, Da Nang and Hue. However, my family and I decided to do something a little different this year and instead opted for a tour of Bai Tu Long Bay, which is in Quang Ninh Province.
The north-eastern province is best known for Ha Long Bay, which has twice been recognised by UNESCO as a world heritage site. However, Bai Tu Long, which is a little farther north, is much less well known and perhaps all the more majestic for its modesty.
Our group of 16 boarded a coach in Ha Noi late on a Friday, impatient to arrive at our destination after a busy working week. It took us nearly three hours to get to Cam Pha Town, where we rested the night in a small hotel close to the port, from where the boat we had chartered was to pick us up early the next morning.
Despite a long week and a tiring journey, I barely slept a wink, eager as I was to explore Bai Tu Long Bay and breathe the fresh sea air. The boat owner did not have to wake us the next day as we were all packed and raring to go at first light.
The journey began in rain but we were snug in the boat’s cabin and far from bored by the view through the windows as we swayed gently on the idle waters of the bay.
It took us about 30 minutes from the mainland to reach the nearest islet. The youthful captain understood our desire to indulge in the scenery, and meandered at half-speed among the limestone karsts of the bay for some three hours before we weighed anchor at The Vang Islet where we enjoyed a seafood lunch.
But beforehand, Hai, the captain, took us to the so called "floating supermarket" – a fabulous assortment of tethered boats and rafts, where you can buy almost anything: fish, fruit, rice, vegetables, aromatic herbs, pork and chicken.
As we arrived, a fishing family was sorting through the day’s catch, which was writhing and wriggling in large woven water-filled baskets. We selected a few choice specimens and paid just two-thirds what we would have done on the mainland just a short distance away. There are no hotels on The Vang, but there are cooking facilities for hire, and we enjoyed a wonderful meal of freshly grilled catfish, fried squid, succulent shrimp and steamed crab.
Over lunch, Lam Chan Khang, a local resident, narrated the legend of the bay – all the islets of which he said he had yet to visit.
The legend says that long ago, when foreign invaders were attacking Bai Tu Long, God dispatched a mother dragon and her babies to help the Vietnamese. The dragons coughed up myriads of pearls and gems that turned into mountains and blocked the attackers’ path.After the invaders were driven away, the mother dragon and her brood decided not to return to heaven but to stay in the lower world.
The land where the mother dragon set foot is now called Ha Long, while Bai Tu Long is named after her babies. The area where her dragon tail lashed was formally called Long Vi but is nowadays known as the Tra Co Peninsula – a long smooth series of sand banks. Among the Bay’s islets are Cho Da (Stone Dog), Dau Be (Calf Head), Con Coc (Toad) and Reu. We spent the rest of the now sunny afternoon swimming and diving in the crystal clear water of Bai Tu Long before moving on to Cong Tay for a snooze.
The island is covered by a lush primitive forest of rare and precious trees that produce ironwood, teak-wood and canary-wood. Valuable araliaceous bark and the rhubarb plant can also be found.
We had booked rooms for the night on the island but most of us elected to sleep under the stars on the roof of the boat.
The second day began with chicken gruel as captain Hai cruised the bay before dropping us off on the other side at Monkey Island. However, we failed to catch sight of the mischievous primates and contented ourselves with a swim in the warm water and collected starfish.
On the way back to the port, we once again paused at the "supermarket" to buy some bargains to take home with us. Back at Cam Pha Town we waved good-bye to Bai Tu Long and made a pledge to return next summer./.
(Khieu Thanh Ha)