HCMC Dining Guide

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Spine of the Emerald Sea

Lan Ha Bay, situated just off of Cat Ba, is similar to the far more famous (and far more touristy) Ha Long Bay, which sits just north of the island. These bays are filled with hundreds of limestone karsts; the rock formations jutting out of the water in unbelievable displays of nature's creativity and unpredictability. Unsurprisingly for such an awe-inspiring area, several legends attempt to explain the creation of these incredible bays. Ha Long, for example, literally means "where the dragon descends into the sea". The story goes that the karsts of the bay were created by a massive dragon that lived in the mountains. When it stormed towards the coast, its tail carved valleys and crevasses out of the peaks. When it jumped into the sea, the whole area was filled with water, leaving only the tops of the mountains visible.

We had booked our day of kayaking through Slo Pony Adventures, and their junk took us out onto the water at about 9am. We sailed for about an hour, passing floating fishing communities and jagged karsts draped in green vegetation under clear skies.

our boat looked something like that
The boat anchored, and we climbed into our two-person kayaks. We never quite worked out how to properly steer, simply zigzagging around, but we could at least go in the general direction that we wanted. The scenery was jaw-dropping: small islands of limestone, their bases eroded by the tides, lorded over the emerald water. It looked like the spine of a gigantic stone beast had been laid out on top of the sea.

We paddled around for 90 minutes, exploring secluded slivers of beaches and small caves gouged into the karsts. At one point, we emerged through an opening under one of the karsts and into a completely isolated lagoon, walled in by the limestone. We stopped paddling and savored the silence. No phone ringtones, no bus horns, no revving motorbikes. I wanted to explore the area some more, but a man in a floating house repeatedly whistled to us, presumably telling us to turn around. So, we headed back to the boat for lunch.

We did some more kayaking after our meal, and saw still more of the amazing sights we had seen earlier in the day. By late afternoon, it was time to head back to the island. The sun was setting behind the karsts in a bright orange glow, making for a stunning finish to an incredible day on the water.
We had seafood for dinner, and then capped the night with pool and a few beers at a smoky bar that was playing old-school (as in 20's and 30's) blues, a far cry from the usual shit music played at most watering holes in Vietnam.

We were actually able to sleep in for the first time all trip the following morning, after which we strolled over to the town's bustling market, which was surprisingly large for such a small community. We bought some fruit for our afternoon of rock climbing, ate a simple breakfast, and headed back to Slo Pony around mid-day.

As we cruised through the emerald sea on our way to Moody Beach, I realized that the floating villages were near-replicas of their land-based brethren. Everything was simply adapted to life on the water. Women in conical hats paddled around in bucket boats, instead of working with water buffalo in paddies. Shrimp, not rice, sat out drying in the sun. Men worked the water, eking out an existence on whatever nature threw at them that day. The dogs were exactly the same: barking at everything that moved.

After we anchored and ate lunch, the five of us that were climbing gingerly stepped onto a rickety bucket boat that putt-putted us over to the beach, while those that stayed on the main boat continued on to go kayaking. There are 6 top-rope routes on Moody, and our belayers were Lee, a young Brit; and Vy, an incredibly strong young Vietnamese guy who scampered up the rock face in flip flops.

I had never climbed a natural wall before, so I wasn't sure what to expect. At first, it was rather tricky. I'm used to a man-made wall in Saigon, which has colored, easily distinguishable routes. On actual rocks, there are no colors, and you have to figure out your own route. Lee and Vy gave us a few hints, but they wouldn't tell us where to go unless one of us got completely stuck. The rock was also rather sharp in places, so you had to be careful not to cut any fingers open. My first climb didn't go particularly well. I completed the wall, but I wasn't confident in my ability to find a route, and I had been so focused on doing so that I forgot to look around me at the scenery once I made it to the top. Fortunately, Lee called up, reminding me to have a look. The sea gently lapped at the edges of our isolated beach, while karsts jutted out of the water in every direction. After a couple of climbs, I got the hang of it, as did everyone else.  We climbed five of the six routes, ranging in difficulty from fairly easy to pretty hard.

Moody Beach
Gearing up
nervous on wall #1
The climbs were awesome, and I will definitely be doing more natural-wall climbing in the region in the future. After our climbs, the main boat arrived to pick us back up. Evening was settling in, and I clambered up to the roof of the boat to enjoy one last spectacular sunset over the bay. We would be heading back to the mainland, and on to home, the next morning. The wind was in my hair, my forearms were burning, and My Morning Jacket was on my Ipod. Tomorrow, Saigon. Right now, perfection.

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