The next day we were entering the Hainan Straits heading for Vietnam. The Hainan Straits had been built up as an event. I was eager to see this interesting spectacle. However the Chinese had plans to thwart our intent. The Chinese had sanctioned our passage with certain stipulations – under no circumstances were any photographs to be taken on deck! The threat was delivered with great intensity leaving one with the thought that if any of us were to be foolish enough to sneak a snap of anything of interest a missile would surely blow the ship to smithereens. Searching the skies for signs of Chinese surveillance satellites or drones I determined to take a few shots anyway. You only have to tell me not to do something and it is immediately the one thing I’m determined to do. I had not previously had the slightest interest in Chinese defences in the region, in fact I had not realised that it was a delicate area of military tension, but found myself intrigued. I don’t know what all the fuss was about. As it happened the day was hazy and never a sight of land did we see, not a single missile site, tank or airfield, no secret ray guns or experimental laser weaponry, not even a barren island with a sentry box. All my surreptitious plans were thwarted. I have a few shots of distance fog though, should anyone be interested. Some straits those were – we might as well have been in the middle of the ocean.
But what was that Chinese threat all about? Surely a few tourist snaps from a passing ship miles out to sea were not going to show anything a satellite or spy-plane camera wouldn’t reveal in a lot more detail?
The next morning I was up on deck shortly after 5 a.m. I know – madness. But we were coming in to Halong Bay. I wanted to observe the way our doughty Captain manoeuvred our craft through the narrow passages between the large array of conical rocks.
My first surprise was that there were lots of boats out there all lit up with hundreds of lanterns. Some of them were big. They were fishing for squid. It created quite a picture with the tumults of rock illuminated by Disneyland boats.
Our Captain swerved and scudded around the rocks like a ragged rascal. I could imagine him there all alone on the bridge, a bottle of rum in one hand, gaily spinning the wheel first one way and then the other, singing at the top of his voice, as he guided us to harbour.
Halong Bay was misty in the night but cleared up in the day. The sun even broke through and we were able to see it in all its majesty. The surreal conical dolomite rocks stuck up out of the water all around like some aquatic willow pattern scene (and I used to think those Chinese designs were fanciful and imaginative). It reminded me of Guilin after a flood. Very majestic and peculiar.
This was one of the places I had really wanted to visit and now we were here. We’d had to choose between getting in amongst the rocks or nipping off to Hanoi. We decided to explore the rocks. Hanoi was a mere city; Halong Bay was a wonder.
We were tendered ashore on our lifeboats. Then we negotiated with the locals who ripped us off handsomely for a trip out among the towering rocks. They merely drove us to a shipping port and put us on a small boat which probably cost half of what we paid them.
First stop was one of the great rock edifices which was hollow and contained a massive cave full of stalagmites and stalactites. I’m not a great one for caves but these were really impressive, among the best I’ve seen, with sheets and curtains of coloured rocks – wonderful to behold. Huge galleries of rippling glazed rock in surreal spectacle.
Then back to the boat and sailing and weaving through the strange rock formations (along with a mass of other boats). They were stunning, as stunning as I had imagined and impossible to capture in photographs. We were lucky to get to see them as the previous two days it had been heavily overcast and raining. Needless to say I took a few photos. Those rocks are enormous and had been sculpted by wind and water erosion into great conical shapes that seem utterly unique and extremely picturesque.
I can see why it is a UNESCO heritage site. It is quite amazing.
We’re now at sea heading off down Vietnam. I’m just finishing this before heading off for lunch – a curry, a pint and a read up on deck. It’s a bit hazy but 26 degrees – quite pleasant.
Next stop tomorrow – Day 32 – Chan May and Hue (only 40 days to go!).
Then, this afternoon, we get our heads together for a Tete a Tete offensive to decide what to do in Saigon! Always good to plan ahead!