Ha Long Bay, the Places You’ll Go, the Things You’ll See, the Dutch Girl You’ll Hate


The Cave: Part I

I’m wedged. The cave ceiling has been in a steep declivity since the entrance, about one hundred meters back, and it’s narrowed down to this point: where the space between water and ceiling is measurable by an arm length, and the space between walls is maybe enough for a Fiat to parallel park. At high tide I’d be underwater.

I’m in a kayak’s stern seat. Leonie is in the bow, which is jammed under the ceiling. The rock is lower for her than for me, so she’s in a more pressing predicament as she has to make sure her face is not slowly scraped across the rock. To preserve her precious noggin she’s nearly flat in the kayak with her palms flat against the ceiling. She’s applying pressure so that the kayak dips deeper into the water to give her head more clearance. The theory is that we can squeeze through this bottom part and go fifty meters more to the cave exit and a lagoon enclosed by high rock ledge.

That’s the theory anyways.

I’m totally ineffectual with a paddle. My torso’s at 135 degrees, and that’s shortened my oar stroke, each one creates nothing more than a weak eddy and spit of water. I lay the oar across the gunwales and reach up to the ceiling to hand crawl the kayak forward.

Our lighting is limited. Leonie wears a headlamp, but the bulb is so close to the rock that the light is nothing more than a concentrated circle, as if enclosed by a bowl. The circumference of light from my headlamp shrinks and turns a pale orange as Leonie belly crawls us further under and the ceiling closes in on me. Our heads are turned cheek-side up as it feels that even our noses are prominent targets for the rock to swipe at.

My face’s circumolar muscles strain in conjunction with my arms. Each attempt forward stalls. “We hit the kayak in front,” Leonie says. I lean over the starboard and see that another kayak is perpendicular to our own. We are last in a line of four.

I hear a voice that sounds impossibly far, yet I know cannot be more than thirty meters ahead. Panic is in the voice, “We need to get out. Go back, go back.” The shout is echoed, five more voices pass the message back as a bucket of water might be during a fire. “Get out, go back.”

I start a backwards crawl, but the kayak is unwieldy. Leonie grows frustrated, “I want to get out,” she says. We’re no longer working in calm tandem. I want to retreat into blue air as fast as I can. I’m nearly clawing now, fast and away from the fevered pitch of male and female voices. “Get out now, get out now,” they yell at us, the stopper at the end of the line, the ones who keep them trapped in darkness.


To Cat Ba

Two Days Earlier—

Most of our trip has been figuring out how to get between Point A and B. We’ve utilized planes, trains, and automobiles, and each leaves our nerves a bit jittery, our awareness of mortality a bit more acute. So it’s a comical relief when we land in Hanoi and discover that Leonie, apparently by accident, booked a luxury bus to take us to the ferry terminal for Cat Ba, about two hours away. It’s just the two of us, and we feel silly lounging in our own row of leather chairs and sweating like pack animals until the attendant begins asking for feedback about how well he’s regulating the A/C. When he starts pulling cold drinks from a refrigerator I feel like we’ve made a breakthrough. 

The highway we’re on belongs to that phylum of motorways that includes Los Angeles’s I-5 and Irvine’s I-405: multiple lanes, narrow shoulders, no promise of ending. This one is blessed with the traffic sparsity of Wyoming though. The lanes aren’t even scarred with the broad plumes of braked rubber. The view is not terrible either. The area is all flat, the vegetation is all green, almost decadently so. Hanoi suburbs have no obvious end. They aren’t dense, yet they go on and on. Eventually we are far enough outside the city that the burbs should properly be called towns, yet their aesthetic and feeling are suggestive of the capital. Residences are skinny and tall, getting up to four stories. Land on either side is ample—grass fields in a lot of cases—so I don’t understand why the buildings aren’t lower and more sprawling. And, what’s more, the buildings stand alone. Picture an individual unit from a block of San Fransisco row houses placed in a Kansas wheat field. It’s strange.

After two hours the highway cuts down and the feeling of nearness to a body of water becomes an anticipation. We make a turn. One moment our tires are going along asphalt, the next they are walloping over lumpy craters in dirt road, and we all rodeo our leather seats and wonder if the van’s shocks are going to spring off.   

The terminal isn’t far. It’s banana colored and looks like a converted garage. Inside are young people, mostly white, tapping cigarette ash into the mouths of empty beer cans. Most look to have been there for a while. There are many beer cans; backpacks are in a pile next to the dock entrance. A canteen in the crook of the interior sells cigarettes and beers and Oreos, and the backpackers are charitable about clearing the place out and stuffing the register.

This could be a bar in any part of Southeast Asia: Dutch, Germans, Kiwis, Americans, Australian, kids talking about the weather, the places they’ve been, the Full Moon parties they’ve blacked out at. A Scottish girl who looks like a milkmaid talks to a Portuguese guy whose sleeveless tank is but a bare suggestion of clothing. Two Midwestern types wear shirts advertising the Catholic university they’ll return to in the fall. Most have faces flush with that penumbra of sunburn, tucked here and there under tans not yet maxed or blatant and painful looking on near albino skin tones. With few exceptions the kids are inked, all up and along their bare arms and on their backs and feet. Whatever type of hieroglyphic or symbol or icon or non-Western dogmatic quote that can be needled into skin is needled into theirs: waves, mountains, Cambodian dictates, the web of pseudo-Maori iconography, all in bolded jade.

We wait ten minutes and then board. The ferry is small—ninety feet from fore to aft. Getting into the fifty seat cabin requires a steep three stair descent. That Scottish milkmaid falls on her face.

The ferry might as well be submerged since the hull sits so deep in the water. Where my feet are put them below sea level. My head might be as well. The waterline appears to be level with the hull windows. It’s hot as bejesus in here. We leave the perspiration condensing on our noses and foreheads since dabbing it off would be a constant undertaking. People open their windows to stir the air once we get moving, and this will end up being a very bad decision.

Once the ferry zips along, a strong cross wind mixes with occasional swell and rolls lush waves across our very low bow. No small amount of water pours through the window openings. They get closed and locked up real quick.

Leonie and I are sitting behind the captain, our heads together to enjoy the faint air coming through a slit in his window. A windshield wiper arcs across it. Northward, I see cargo ships a mile away and the cranes that unload them. On the coast are an array of gray buildings, all in columns like carbon dust layered upon a magnet, and smokestacks painted like barber poles.


Cat Ba

Vietnam’s landscapes are inexorably sad to look at. I don’t mean sad in a way that suggests regret, like Vietnam’s mountains and rivers fail to meet expectations so you are sad that you ever came. The sadness is more akin to the sadness of melancholic poems. Their words bind to the mind better than the words of happy ones since sadness is an emotion we viscerally empathize with. It feels serious when we suffer, so we obsess over trying to understand its roots and effects. We can’t properly move on until our body inherits it and pearls it over. Happiness doesn’t lay the same weight. It falls off like shed skin. More often its existence is our recognizing its absence. 

Why Vietnam’s landscapes are sad is perhaps because the weather seems to be very gray most of the time. It’s not only clouds, but the clouds’s substratum: gray from eye to horizon. The sun is not some absentee, however, it’s just that clouds, massive in form, slate in color, are its poignant companions. And these clouds, swollen and with soft indentations like fingers pressed into risen dough, if they are not raining then they threaten rain. When it rains it rains in such biblical quantities that I reason using my limited experience in this area that it is not possible for the rain to continue. Yet it does. It goes on and on and on, and the landscape absorbs it all, slops it up, the sand and plants and rivers so efficient and remarkable with the task that I wonder if they had been in drought. Once the rain stops, the clouds look no less threatening.

This is what I think at breakfast on my first morning in Cat Ba.

I’m on the top story of our hotel and looking through a tinted window that has herringbone scratches of rain patterned on it. The hotel’s interior is big and irrefutably Communist. The lobby is a monstrosity of marble and decoratively carved wood furniture. In the dining room, which is like a ball room with white linens and cloth napkins folded into crowns, chefs in pleated hats and elegant whites refill buffet chafing dishes with noodles and a type of porridge slop called congee. They put a few western foods out on platters: cold cuts, finger sized croissants, that type of thing. Piping through four large speakers is a type of Vietnamese elevator music. Perhaps the many Chinese tourists who are failing at attempting to stop their children from running around screaming consider the music background, hardly noticeable. To me though, its use of string instruments that twang and reverberate endlessly behind synthetically altered voices is disquieting rather than relaxing. I wonder if the chefs and tourists would say the same thing about Django Reinhardt. 

The hotel is along Cat Ba town’s main street. The street comes from a notch of mountain, curves along the bight next to town, and goes out, past a few floating restaurants and then around a limestone peak.

And that, more or less, is Cat Ba town: that road, those restaurants, this hotel, and the other hotels below me.

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This island is mostly national park but with a small town. At least one person referred to it as “Jurassic Park.” Its terrain is crumpled into staggering karst cliffs with jungle stuffed into fissures, and there are lemurs somewhere. Only a pocket of area is suitable for building. That’s what I’m on top of: it’s where the land emerges from the sea at a slight incline. The area that the pocket encompasses is the equivalent of a few soccer fields. This land paucity, coupled with the island’s nearness to Ha Long Bay (Vietnam’s most visited area), means this former fishing village had all the economic incentive to build through its ceiling. As the mountains go up, so goes the town.

A massive inland promontory right behind the town will likely always be the town limit. Parts of the base are being cut away and made into massive square footprints for new buildings. They’re inlaid with rebar and concrete. The mountain ledge can’t be reckoned with though. Not yet. It’s face is too steep. Even motorcycles struggle up its lone road.

Leonie and I hiked up on the day we arrived. During the War it was all defensive fortifications. Now it’s a military relic with preserved trenches and howitzers viewable with a self-guided walking tour. (It’s also an unintentional petting zoo: pigs, poultry, and bitches pawing about and barking at billy goats.)

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A promontory cafe complete with a pay-to-view tower viewer is at tour end and faces out to the karst archipelagos of Lan Ha and Ha Long Bays. It’s impossible to see the entirety of either simply because so many of their limestone peaks match in height to this one of Cat Ba’s. The view is only an insight into their magnitude.

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The Cruise

The rudimentary design and aesthetic of Vietnamese travel agency websites make me weary. Advertising on a GeoCities type website doesn’t per se make a company fraudulent, but my internal fraud detector was calibrated during the visa process and never shut off. “Vietnam Visa” in Google produced hits with .gov and .vn URLs, and these offered visa delivery and on-arrival visas (pro-trip: on-arrival visas are not a thing for American citizens). The Vietnam Embassy website that the U.S. State Department routed me to looked eerily similar to those sites: Vietnamese colors, government stamp, RSS feed with tourist related links, business information, etc. I clicked the “Travel Warning” link on the Embassy’s site and saw that three of the URLs I’d visited were flagged or shut down for running scam operations. Warning delivered. Lesson learned.

Reputable tour companies outnumber the hucksters by a vast margin, but since the above was my introduced to Vietnam’s e-commerce risks, I approached booking a Ha Long Bay cruise with undue caution. Plus, I noticed instances of piggybacking on business names—the practice of altering a letter or word in the name of an already successful company for the purpose of duping consumers into patronizing your business (aka the practice that made hundreds of thousands of American school children in the 90s associate their White House with nipple free gazongas). Say a highly rated cruise is “Ha Long Bay Majesty Cruises.” Your errant memory might bring you to “Majesty Ha Long Bay Cruises” or “Ha Long Majesty Cruises Bay.” It’s like some expanded binomial theorem of trickery.

Facing difficulty choosing a boat is practically a rite of passage. Many blogs don’t give advice on which to choose, but how. One first page search hit is “Choosing a Ha Long Bay tour – why is it so hard?” The plethora of options is arresting—romance cruises, sporting cruises, kayak cruises, drinking cruises, do-nothing cruises, culinary cruises, cruises that are a piece of wood with a motor on the back—and hints at another salient point: Ha Long Bay is really congested. Like, badly. Trash chokes beaches. Certain inlets suffocate from the sheer volume of boats. It’s at a point where even the Wall Street Journal says, eh, maybe you want to check out this other bay instead?

We eschewed early on booking from a brick and mortar company. It’s insane the amount of commercial real estate taken up by these agencies. If the percentage of storefronts is indicative of how much Vietnam’s GDP consists of tourism, I’d guess 30% (looked this up on Wikipedia, in 2004 the number was 38.2%. Win). Tours are picked from pictographic menus, and there’s hardly a nexus between tour company and tour agency except what the agency has been financially incentivized to push. Often listed on white boards are “special” tour prices, except the white boards are conspicuously without evidence of ever being erased.

To recap real quick: I was weary booking a tour online because of reasons, I got overwhelmed with options, and I did not want to book through a brick and mortar because of upcharges.

So, naturally, when the bus attendant to Cat Ba said, “I know a guy who started a company two months ago,” and then handed me a business card with just a name and address, I pretty much jumped up and said, “You got yourself a deal!”

At this brick and mortar address, a kind and young woman opens a binder with the new company’s cruise options: 1 day, 2 day, 3 day. The back wall features a gigantic water depth chart for the area, various lagoons and inlets have been circled or flagged with pins. “We don’t go to crowded places,” she says and winks.

On arriving at the pier, it is obvious our boat will be near empty. The day is drab and quite cool. The coolest since we arrived. Rain is sporadic, everything is slick. The atmosphere is that hectic frenzy that is unique to pre-vacation logistics and what makes waiting to get into Disneyland so unpleasant. Gaggles of tour groups follow around guides that hold poles with colored kerchiefs pinned at their ends. Certain boat operators are lax about boarding procedures, so more than one person is escorted off by a hawkish tour guide after a charge walks onto the wrong boat.

The guy who drove us shepherds us to a boat close to the pier entrance and far from the frenzy. A wizened captain smoking a cigarette stands at boat end and nods us on board.

This boat is a junk boat. (Junk is a noun here, I’m not being degrading.) It’s two stories, the stern is angled, to get to the upstairs you clamor up a bolted-on steel ladder. On the upper deck are lounge chairs, a canvas cover, and in the stern is a cabin. When I venture back I see two Vietnamese children sleeping, a third looking at me with a pillow drawn to his face, eyes looking at me like an owl’s. Downstairs has free standing tables and long benches. The captain is asking the guide and the three other tour companions if we want coffee, and he hollers back into a kitchen. He comes out a moment later with Vietnamese coffee in plastic cups, and all of us stand on the stern as the engines stir the topaz water up and reverse us from the dock. 

Boat Captain


The Companions

Dane Cook had this joke: There is one person in every group of friends that no one fucking likes. Ours is Dutch girl. On the boat I call her by her actual name, but to you she is Dutch girl.¹ She is thirty-one and about five feet nine, which I understand is near average in Holland. She has the shape of a swimmer, shoulders as flat and stable as non-Ikea shelving. Her face is at once tanned and sunburned. Personality wise, Dutch girl has opinions on everything, including topics she’s just been introduced to. It’s clear she assumes opinions are meant to be shared, whatever they are. For example, being vegan saves the world, capitalism destroys it (the world, not vegan-ism), humidity is exfoliating, there are not enough monkeys, make sure you only go on humane elephant rides, riding elephants is inhumane, the only way to explore a country is by motorbike, etc. She allows no ideological wiggle room. Her voice is oppressive, not because of any tonal quality, but because it does not stop.

Everyone else on the tour is defined by where they fall on the spectrum of tolerance for Dutch girl. Leonie tires of her within half a day but keeps publicly mum about it. My favorite is an Italian guy. He shows up to the boat ready to party, a cigarette burned to its base in his lips, a week’s worth of vodka still in his eyes. His outfit is notable: shirt is blood red and silk screened with the hammer/sickle combo, he wears a camouflaged military hat, pants are baggy and thin and cut like Aladdin pants and the pattern is the same as what was on Will’s shirt for the DVD box of Season 2 of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. He speaks with such a strong central Italian accent that I think he is Russian. “Big fan of Reaganomics I take it?” is the first thing I say to him. He chuckles, and I think we become friends. I’ll call him Rasputini.

Despite being a natural ideological ally of Dutch girl (both avowed anti-government types), Rasputini descends into an outright, almost instantaneous war with her, taking on the thankless task of opposing her ceaseless neuroticism. A lot of the animosity is personality based, as they argue on the same side of most issues. I imagine meeting an ideological mirror who is abrasive and overflowing with baseless assertions puts him in a bit of a moral bind. He gazes at her while she talks, and each time there is a hysterically exciting moment when I think he’ll yell out, cigarette in hand, and stand with such velocity that his chair will tip over. When she states her objection to vaccines, calling their efficacy in preventing disease “more harmful than good,” he throws his hands up and says, “I need cigarette” and leaves the conversation.

There is also Mika, who is attached to Dutch girl to a curious degree. They met in the south as part of a motorbike group. By Dutch girl’s telling, this group, about a dozen people, dispersed in pursuit of other plans when she suggested coming to Ha Long. “Most people had already come here,” she claims. As Rasputini’s eyes follow a tortellini shape in his head I figure I’m not the only person who thinks she was ditched.

Mika either has deep space amounts of patience or he enjoys Dutch girl’s company. He’s inordinately chill, though. His common refrains—“yah awesome” and “totally cool”—become this brotastic social umami, and even when I’m with him chilling and looking at the sky, I get this all-surfers-surf-in-one-ocean kind of vibe. You’re picturing a tall, fatless, tan blond boy with a bunch of tattoos and long hair sucked into a bun. Well played. During our overnight—in a house boat—Mika and Dutch girl lodge in the next room. The walls are thin, just some plywood hammered into place. Though I’m wearing ear plugs and have what is likely a sawdust-stuffed pillow over my head, it’s as if their voices are perched in my ear drums. I try to be polite, but first it’s 10pm and then 11pm and the two carry on like precocious teens on their first sleep over. “I wish she’d shut up,” Leonie says, referencing the voice that’s doing all the carrying. Mika’s voice is the decibel equivalent of a fire ember. I go outside and courtesy knock their door, “Sorry guys, wanted to give you a heads up that we can hear everything you’re saying.” At breakfast it is Mika who apologies. Dutch girl says, “I didn’t think we talked loud.”

On our first day we pick up two Americans. Chloe is twenty three and looks like a Disney princess. Her eyes are just stunning, her hair is so flawless that purple prose was invented to describe it. She has an ambiguous relationship with the guy she boards with, like is this something that will be long term, do they drop L bombs, is there potential—all fair game questions since they met on the road a few weeks ago and it isn’t like they’re going back to a lease that has both their names on it. The only certainty is that the relationship is sexual: she coos on him, and when they are on the lounge chairs they’re on each other like wet towels. His hair is oil black, and he has a slight dimple chin. Keeping with the Disney motif he’s a near dead ringer for Gaston, except he wears a Hawaiian shirt where the top four buttons must be faulty.

Gaston is the type to jump off the boat at the first invitation, asks for double shots of bootleg vodka, and is consumptive of other peoples’ cigarettes and generous with his own. He has the exuberance of someone who simply does stuff and would like to do more stuff. Chloe is a bit more reserved. Certainly less of an adrenaline junkie. She jumps off the boat once and that is good enough. She asks me if I’d like to buy Gaston’s motorbike. He rode through Vietnam and Cambodia on it with no problems and is looking to sell. That she asks me and he does not tells me enough about their respective abilities to size a person up.

Neither are on board long enough to become that embroiled in any Dutch girl brouhaha, but Chloe and I find an immediate connection. Five minutes into our conversation it steers into a chance for me to play my favorite meeting game. Spoiler: the game is stupid. The game’s purpose is to as un-excitedly and calmly as possible raise the stakes on a conversation that promises to culminate in a mind-blowing realization of serendipity. I ask, “Where in America are you from?” From there it proceeds as follows:

Chloe: California, what about you?

Me: Same. Where in California?

C: Oh no kidding, I’m from San Diego.

Me: Where in San Diego?

C: Do you know the city well?

Me: Yes, a bit.

C: So I grew up in La Jolla.

Me: Nice. Where did you go to high school?

C: Um…Bishop’s.

Me: I graduated there in O-five, what about you?

C: What, seriously? Are you being for real right now? I graduated a few years ago.

Me: Is the Daily Urinal still a thing?

C: Holy shit, yes. I knew the editors, they were like some my good friends.

Me: Cool, I started it.

C: Oh my god, hi, I’m Chloe, nice to meet you.

Me: Pleasure. 

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The Guide

Our guide is a kid. Really, just a kid. He isn’t drinking with us, doesn’t smoke. He’s sixteen but looks younger, in part because he is feebly small. I could wrap my thumb and pointer around his ankle, and his heart makes visible thumps in his chest. His ears stick out and he is always grinning. Half the time he talks to me I think he’s running a gag, that’s how big and silly this grin is. He speaks with a purposeful lisp. Think of that elementary school kid who struggled with “gee” sounds. They push the syllable through the gummy space between cheeks and teeth. Saliva sprays out. That’s how our guide talks except he does it intentionally. Or, at least, that’s how he learned.

Also, our guide has his shit together. Like in a way I’m not used to. I think of myself or friends who are fucking incapable of understanding what “meet at 5pm” actually means and this kid can summon a 500 pound grouper to his hand.² Our boat captain is three times older and the kid still runs the show. After one day he establishes himself as the unflappable master of Ha Long Bay knowledge. He studies hospitality at a nearby university, has been running tours since he was twelve, and, with his boss/the company owner, mapped the cruise route. According to him they spent months kayaking in and out of the multitudinous lagoons, studied satellite imagery to scout for isolated beaches, and bargained with different floating lodges. His mind is a GPS. At night he urges us to follow him on kayak and leads us a kilometer under the milk light of a gibbous moon to a dark ledge and then drags his oar to fuss dormant plankton into coloring the water with bioluminescence. One time—just one time—he passes instructions for us to execute without him. “We’re anchored, the boat will stay, swim to shore, go around the temple you see, and find a trail that will take you to a cliff so you get view of the bay.” We prove ourselves to be so inept at doing this that we end up calling at him from shore to swim in and show us. “You are all so useless,” he says when he guides us to the viewpoint.

Ha Long Bay Cruise


The Cave: Part II

The company did not lie when it claimed it did not visit crowded places. Every anchor spot is deserted. Sand beaches have no footprints. Most often we cruise among fishermen trawling in small boys or we wade to shore amongst women unraveling nets from spools. When we jump into the water, the smell and taste is infused with the brackish ripeness of oysters, not kerosene. Only once do we moor alongside another tour boat. The mooring is on a floating structure with ample dock space, most of it is taken up by kayaks basking like blue walruses.

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Kayaks on the beach

“We will visit four caves,” our guide says. We launch our kayaks and right off the dock spot the mouth to one. Over the entrance is a red triangular sign painted with a white skull and crossbones. “Dangerous, Do Not Enter,” it warns. We pass it and go off through other inlets and lagoons. We go into a few caves, they’re tight at times, but they’re all at least skewered by light. Once an entry way is too thin so we hop off your kayaks to tread through, taking care to keep our feet and hands off sharp limestone crags inlaid with the flakes of oyster shells. We are always weary of bats overhead and the snakes that slink off rocks into the water to escape our approach.

Group Cave Entrance

After three caves we turn back and navigate through familiar channels until our boat becomes larger than bathtub sized. After half an hour it becomes clearer and clearer to me that Leonie and I are at the vanguard of a beeline towards that off limit cave.

“I’m pretty sure we’re going in and no way in hell I’m joining,” I say. My reasoning at the moment is I’ve seen crowded buses cross double yellow at 60 mph (100 kmh) into incoming traffic to overtake a slow moving motorbike that has a pig in a metal cage above rear wheel; I’ve seen construction workers without harnesses waddle twenty stories across narrow steel beams. In other words: if I see a safety warning in this country, it means serious fucking business.

The guide paddles up, “It’s totally safe!” He says, grinning (of course).

“Why the hell am I looking at a skull and cross bones?”

“Only when it is high tide. High tide still many hour away, I checked.”

“What about a freak wave?”

“No waves, plenty of space overhead. You fine.”

“There’s no risk of collapse?”

“None. I been through many times. You come, you come.”

At this point Leonie and I go from leaders to stragglers. The kayak with the guide and Rasputini enters. Two more kayaks follow.

“Okay,” I say to Leonie, “I’ll go in if you’re okay to go in.”

She’s paddling forward before I finish the sentence.

The first grotto is spacious. Bats flit about. They roost in clusters, two three or five of them arrayed from a central point like some writhing ornament. The mammalian brush of their bodies against the stone sounds like soft scratching.

Multiple curves, tapering walls, and a descending ceiling makes this the first cave where light dwindles behind us and dark thickens ahead. Nothing suggests an exit.

The ceiling closes in on our heads, and the bats this far in don’t appreciate the company. They detach from their hanging spots and fly about us, their wing tips nearly flick our bangs and are the only objects that can rustle the hot air.

I begin to get these visions of a lone wave filing the cave mouth, a quick upswell of water that presses us against the ceiling or forces us to roll off the kayak to avoid crushing. Then I imagine the water hanging suspended, stealing all air pockets and not subsiding before we need our next breath. I don’t know how deep the cave bottom is, or for how much longer it extends in front. It turns out I do not do well in enclosed spaces. Or dark enclosed spaces. Or dark enclosed spaces stuffed with bats where the threat of drowning is real enough to warrant a Do Not Enter sign.

This is the point where Leonie and I press against the cave ceiling for clearance. How the kayaks in front of us got to where they are I have no idea. I hear the Dutch girl yell, “Get out, get out.” She’s either around a bend or the ceiling is so close to the water that it’s pinched off her voice while the lapping of water cuts further into the sound, increasing with peaks the distance the voice must travel.

We crawl backwards. The rock is slimy, but at least there are no spider webs. In other caves the sprawling webs floss your fingers and you just wait for a long-legged tickle to begin at the crew of your shirt. When light appears it feels like I understand the metaphoric “light” people talk about. Once we have enough space to turn around we do and then paddle out and wait. When each kayak comes out, the passengers pause and splash their faces with water. “Tide is too high this time,” the guide says.

The Dutch girl says, “I did not like that at all. I so, so hate small spaces.

“Well,” Rasputini says with fake earnesty, “Finally something you and me can agree on.”

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♦♦♦

¹ Other than Leonie, everyone has been granted a pseudonym.

² The house boat we lodged at doubled as a fish nursery, and the grouper is kept under the floorboards in the dining room. 

2 thoughts on “Ha Long Bay, the Places You’ll Go, the Things You’ll See, the Dutch Girl You’ll Hate

  1. Really glad I found your blog. It doesn’t often happen to be stumbling upon somebody who can actually *tell* a story, build the characters and in general guide the reader through a mind journey without so much of a photo (animated .gifs: great idea!). There are three or four other blogs I follow that do, even though one has gone awfully quiet as of late, so I’m always happy to increase the number.
    Hope your sabbatical will last as long as it can!
    Fabrizio

    Like

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