The school of thought that the process of getting to a destination is almost as enriching as arriving there is one that I have always ascribed to. Family holidays to the south of
France were memorable as much for
the minutiae of ferry crossings and giant Gallic hypermarkets as they were for the weeks spent in gites across the Dordogne.
Likewise, later odysseys across Europe by rail, or around India and Southeast Asia by any means possible (even if that included a suicidal speedboat down the Mekong River in Laos) were replete with cameos that have lodged themselves in the memory with a tenacity that belies their fleeting nature.
The same romance is in short supply, however, as I stumble out of bed at 5am and groggily make my way through the near-deserted streets of Hanoi on a sticky July morning to meet my guide Guilhem. We are about to embark on a three-day exploration of one of the most beautiful parts of arguably the most beautiful seascape on the planet, the island of
Cat Ba in Vietnam’s Halong Bay. There is nothing attractive about the welcome I receive on reaching the meeting point in the heart of the city’s Old Quarter.
“Am I in the right place?” I ask a fierce-looking man wielding a broom as I await Guilhem’s arrival. A firm shove and a heated exchange of niceties later and the day is off to an unexpectedly fraught start. Apparently the janitor isn’t in the best of moods today.
After picking up our Vietnamese guide, Hau, at Hanoi’s bus station, we make the three-hour journey to the northern port of Haiphong from where it is only a 50km ride in a hydrofoil to Cat Ba Island. My sea legs are thankfully strong, but the growing swell of the emerald waters as we head out to sea triggers a domino effect within the cramped, airless cabin as the decision of one wretched-looking soul to utilise his sick bag prompts a host of others to do likewise. With soaring temperatures and a cacophony of screaming children adding to the fun, the encroaching sight of our destination’s jungle-clad limestone peaks prompts deep relief rather than the expected sense of awe. That would come later.
In all honesty I would have been slightly sceptical about the prospect of spending more time in the Halong Bay area even if the journey hadn’t been a hair’s breadth shy of hellish. In common with most visitors to Vietnam, the karst- studded maritime wonderland in the northeast corner of the country was right at the top of must-visit sites before I arrived. My previous trip to the area three months prior to this one had, however, left me underwhelmed and not a little depressed. Most tourists, inexplicably, choose to whiz through Vietnam, landing in Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi and rushing up or down the coast while totting up the major sights on the way. Most of the tour companies who operate in Halong Bay cater to this skittish, box-ticking approach to travel – whisking visitors from Hanoi to Halong City and then out onto the water for a two-day/one-night cruise.