Helter Skelter Hanoi & Hypnotic Ha Long Bay
Based on notes from my Journal August 11th-14th, 2016
"Good morning Vietnammmmmmmmm!!!" exclaimed Raphael as he drew open the curtains, flooding our Old Quarter penthouse with morning sunshine. "A beautiful, bountiful morning for our supreme pleasure my liege" he continued on, in a mock medieval bard voice, a voice imitating Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein's squire—Geoffrey Chaucer—in our favorite movie growing up, A Knight's Tale. "Whereupon shall we break our fast with another gorge this fine day in Hanoi?" Breakfast bahn mi featuring some deliciously dank doner kebab.
That first day in Hanoi was a blur. Dropping into Hanoi's hectic urban life coming from the peaceful and mesmerizing Mekong Delta in Luang Prabang was a sensory overload. Bright city lights, cars and scooters madly whizzing about, and sidewalks littered with trinket sales, Vietnamese wise men playing go and smoking bamboo bongs. Contrary to our hectic surroundings, our first day was more leisurely, exploring The Hoi An Hilton—the famous Vietnam War prison where John McCain was held as a P.O.W., a decompression at a hookah lounge (sorry mom and dad!), excessive amounts of Vietnamese iced coffee to fuel my binge-journaling, and a dinner gorge at a street side Korean Vietnamese BBQ fusion cafe that was deliciously incapacitating.
Out in the open, there was a display featuring all the assorted uncooked, skewered BBQ goods that would be prepared by yours truly at a personal, table-side BBQ. They had over 10 different parts of the chicken from the feet to the gizzard, beef belly to beef shoulder, chicken nuggets, cod nuggets, french baguettes, vegetables, shrimp and other crawly crustaceans (that I find abhorrent), and at least a few unrecognizable skewers, presumably livers? The amount of food Raphael and I ordered was unfathomably unjustifiable, to the point it stoked the incredulous laughter of the young male servers hanging out and drinking beers. The first round was pure indulgence. Multiple skewers of beef and chicken bulgogi, a few BBQ chicken breasts, a mini sweet honey baguette, assorted veggies, Vietnamese chicken nuggets, cod nuggets, ribs, pork belly, and more I certainly forgot during my culinary blackout. And for only for $21, a cool half million in Vietnamese dong, completely worth it. Bellies full, we were more than ready for a midnight descent to sleep.
The next day was another blur. We moved apartments. On the way we stopped at a Confucian University and Temple for a re-dose of Chinese culture and window into Sino influence in Southeast Asia. We ate more, drank more coffee. Another night outdoing our thinner selves from the previous night going to town at the same BBQ joint.
The next day wasn't a blur, at all. It was a journey from Hanoi to a mesmerizing wonder of the natural world, Ha Long Bay, except this journey to a different place and a different time. Over a thousand limestone islets from millions of years ago scatter and decorate the emerald waters of Ha Long’s bountiful bay. These thousand or so limestone guardians, a remnant of the Earth's early years of existence, have weathered time's storm and survived dramatic erosion, techtonic shifting, and an extreme tropical climate. However, the waves and wind have shaped these strong and proud limestone pillars of primordiality into unique tree-lined islets, sandy beaches, and deep caves. Riding around on the ship through the endless maze of limestone pillars and islands was like a voyage back in time, a voyage to a dawn before the time of humans. Without the boat, the year could have been 2016 b.c.e. as well as 2016 a.d. Oh, it would be remiss if I didn't mention the sensory overload of all things green, an enchanting emerald splendor. Mesmerizing bright emerald water shimmering; the lime colored stone guardians of a bygone era; and lush, dense, deep green mangroves, ferns, and magnolias atop these atavistic islets. Contemplating the existence of such a real place, a real place that we had been teleported too, was hypnotizing.
From the ship we disembarked onto the pier of a small fishing village nestled away amongst the islets. There were local villagers living out their lives here in a village built on top of the water, a village in the middle of this primordial reality, a village miles by sea from civilization. Here many of the local men caught the fish as their female counterparts rowed junk boats around the bay carrying tourists under grottoes, onto beaches, and even to caves if they so desire. Our junkboat pilot was a quiet, fortitudinous woman named An who methodically rowed us along a grotto underneath a towering limestone pillar into an enclosed mini-bay surrounded entirely by limestone reaching into the sky, stunningly surreal. From there she directed us back through the watery underpass and around the entirety of the pillar, even passing the wreck of a junkboat much like ours, floating solemnly atop the murky forest green surface of the sea before returning the lost sheep to herd aboard the tour boat.
En route to the main tourist attraction, the massive Surprise Cave, we passed by a few notable landmarks of Ha Long Bay, most with lamentably forgotten Vietnamese names aside from Trong Mai Islet, lasciviously nicknamed the Kissing Cocks for the appearance as well as a tribute to love, as dawn and dusk light up the stone lovers each and every day. Sailing right on be we arrived at a small harbor where other tourist cruise ships were moored--it's a trap!--and ventured by foot into Surprise Cave. This cave was immense, and it was all subsurface. Stalagmites and stalactites littered the cavern, another remnant of primordiality. Another remnant of primordiality littered with tourists, including us, and lit up by these sleazy neon lamps. It felt unnatural the way we wandered through an ancient made cave flooded with bright blue, red, green, pink, purple, and yellow lights. That's just opinion, some people may have enjoyed the rave-like effect of the lighting, though I think it diminished the natural splendor of such an atavistic artifact. Directed along a guided path we eventually reached a gazebo overlook offering Surprise Cave tourist tokens as well as a stunning view of the harbor, one of the foliage covered limestone tentacles of the islets, the Gulf of Tonkin beyond, and far across the water urban signs of civilization.
Ha Long Bay and Hanoi were the perfect yin and yang. Hanoi's hectic city life was immaculately complemented by the natural and uncanny beauty of Ha Long Bay. After days spent lounging at Utopia in Luang Prabang, Hanoi was a pleasant change of pace that got me into a Vietnamese groove that would permeate my experiences the next 10 days in Vietnam. However, after a few days spent wandering through Hanoi, Ha Long Bay was a most enchanting end to my time in North Vietnam. An experience of yin and yang that I won't soon forget.
But just as the helter skelter city life of Hanoi completed the natural and uncanny beauty of Ha Long Bay, the overall enchanting experience was plagued with thoughts about history and my perception as an American there. In Hoi An, I walked the Hanoi Hilton prison grounds reading the methods of imprisonment and torture that John McCain saw and experienced. Ha Long Bay is nestled inside the Gulf of Tonkin, the site of a (tele)miscommunication about a Viet Cong naval attack on a U.S. ship that triggered President Lyndon B. Johnson to send troops to Vietnam. Hanoi was a beautiful city, but it is still in the process of rebuilding itself.