23 September 2008
34 in halong
If a husband loves his wife he will spare her the knowledge that a gigantic meaty spider is lurking in the rafters of the thatched hut where they are eating dinner. He will keep this information to himself because he has an inkling that if his wife were to find out that these types of spiders live on the island where they are spending the night, she would never -ever- fall asleep in their small and exceedingly open hut on the beach.
I am happy to report that I am a loved wife and did not find out about the mammoth spider until well after breakfast the next day. That's not to say that I slept much anyway. Despite the sleepiness cultivated by an afternoon of kayaking and a birthday bottle of Vietnamese wine, our bodies noticed when it came time to turn off the generator. Our hut had two small oscillating fans, one pointed at each of our mosquito netted "beds," and the moment that generator stopped, the hot circles of air issuing from the fans stopped as well. So did the white-noise hum that had done such a good job of masking the scratching and rooting of nocturnal things.
Waking up that next morning was as much about rising to face a new day as it was about trying to find a new breeze. We stumbled out of our hut and found that our strip of sandy beach had grown overnight. With the help of the tide, the clear waters of Halong Bay had taken a deep breath and pulled back to reveal many yards of beach that were previously underwater. Strips of yellow sand appeared along the handful of islands visible from our beach and later that morning we explored one of them after kayaking through the calm bay.
The waters of Halong Bay are green and warm and in the best places they are so clear that you can see your feet shuffle along the sandy bottom. These waters have a habit of washing crowds of shells onto the beach, and gently rocking the jellyfish that float alongside your large dragon boat as it pilots to places both secret and wild. They are salty and tepid and reflect the sun like a 1000 watt bulb. They are the stuff of postcards and guidebooks and warrant every ounce of attention that they receive.
It was a thrill to be the only guests on an island. We hadn't expected to be the only people on our kayaking tour and were surprised to find that our only neighbors would be the staff: three young Vietnamese guys who, when they weren't snoozing in hammocks, were enjoying their nightly generator splurge of dance music and satellite TV.
On what turned out to be our personal tour of the bay we went kayaking twice. One outing ended in a glorious quest to avoid heatstroke, and the other delivered us not only through a small rock tunnel but also to a floating fishing village populated by entire families, their agile dogs, and the floating cages of fish they were raising.
Back at the beach we watched giant black wasps dig tunnels in the sand beneath our breakfast table and were amazed by the sun's quick work at drying our sopping-wet clothes. We went swimming and shell hunting, and took cold-water showers looking out on the bay. We sprayed DEET and SPF 50 and didn't brush our teeth.
The concept of luxury is fluid and I swear to you that last week it meant sleeping on a thin mattress among the ants and begging the wind to bring a breeze.