09. Halong Bay – Where dragons fly and pirates hide
Once was the sound of battle.
Men against men. Sea against land.
In the very end, nothing you could hear but desperation for the imminent defeat.
Then, a cavernous rumble shook the waters, knocking the waves against the rocky shore.
The two opposing armies stared dazed at undefined targets. Nothing they could see.
Another sound, acute like the hiss of a magnificent blade being whetted on a stone, speared the air and pierced the soldiers’ spines.
Suddenly hurtling towards them, out of the smoky fog and mist above, was the form of a dragon, her wings tucked tight to her body and tipped into a steep dive.
Panic gripped the men as she levelled out, swooping low over the water made black by her foreboding shadow. Two smaller dragons followed their mother’s wake, falling even more precipitously into the vacuum left by her imposing body.
The mother roared again, lashing out with her claws at the foe while breathing blue fire and spitting greenstones. Her children echoed.
The giant emerald rocks struck the water, digging their most sharpened wedge into the sea bottom.
A barrier was created around the shore. Any enemy ships would be destroyed soon after crashing against the newly formed islands. (J.O.)
The four-hour journey by bus from Hanoi to Halong Bay softens my eyelids while I look out at the subtle line that cuts the landscape in two.
The pale greens of a flat earth and the ivories of a rainy sky meet and melt as if they were impalpable colours that an invisible finger squeezed and slowly dragged over a silky surface.
The cold, nude, blunt nuances of today’s rudimentary palette slip into the rivers, seek the sea and disperse in its green waters.
Halong Bay. The bay of the descending dragon.
A constellation of emerald-like rocks that seem to have fallen into the water as randomly as a pile of dice thrown onto a green play mat.
The Bay is the reason why I’ve chosen Vietnam over other destinations, captured by that romantic page of The Times.
It’s the perfect place where to surrender to my laziness and be cuddled up by the reds of a touching sunset and a glass of wine.
I capture a glimpse of the horizon from the docks, or rather some portions of it revealed by the unstable push and pull of the boat hulls still fastened to the pier.
It’s lunchtime, and the weather is getting better; a livid sky is being replaced by the white of scattered, foamy clouds. It seems like the sunlight is bringing back a three-dimensionality and vivacity that the rain had previously washed away.
A small boat ferries people and luggage to the cruise ship anchored offshore, which slowly meanders through the islands.
The ships crossing each other path are uncountable, yet I glimpse spots of deserted beauty.
The sea looks so dense that the islands can’t be mirrored by its waters.
Here, strings of rocks emerge from the bottom like teeth of an immense dragon’s jaw bone; elsewhere, isolated and defenceless islets are consumed by the placid but perpetual washing of those green waves.
The rocky skin is covered with curly vegetation, perfectly styled by nature, leaving just a few naked spots.
I close my ears and look up. Humanity is temporarily kept aside from my scenography. The peak of a small isle is crowned by the circular flight of an eagle; the prey of a crow perched on the mainsail lies inert in its beak.
After receiving some safety instructions, I retreat to my cabin. It’s a small room with a toilet, the walls wholly covered by red mahogany with Asiatic mouldings. The furniture is elemental: a large bed, a small cabinet of wood, a mirror, a broken frosted glass case.
A smell of old driftwood and salt lends the tiny space a ‘piratesque’ air, recalling Salgari’s adventures of corsairs that I loved to read when I was a child.
I pull the cruise itinerary out of my bag and look at it as if I had a treasure map in my hands – a mysterious cave to explore, a mountain peak to climb, a secluded beach to discover. That seems a real adventure for me.
It’s a shame that the kayak has been cancelled. I’ve never tried it. The local operators have stopped the excursions after some tourists were assaulted and robbed by modern pirates. I realise how a silent abode like Halong Bay can quickly turn into a pulsating bandit cove.
Dusk comes early in the afternoon; dark-steel colour shades veil the bay, which quickly fills up with small merchant boats. Women lead them, bringing their children too. They approach the ships and attempt little bargains by selling vegetables, eggs, gadgets, cigarettes.
All cruise ships stop for the night. They become little cocoons of light and music, dampened by the void of the surroundings.
I hold back on the deck in the darkness. I don’t crave my cruise mates’ company. I only think about how extraordinary it is being in that place at that moment, by myself.
How surprising – and crazy – a broken heart can be.