Where the dragon sleeps / by Marek Charytonowicz

I arrive at Halong Bay with mixed feelings. This is thanks to our guide who tries to do his very best with his very poor English and enormous amount of facts which would be very interesting if they were served in a more professional way. What he manages to convey is the overwhelming sense of commercialization of the area, additionally underlined by one stop on the way taking place in a massive craft supermarket.

When one thinks of Halong Bay, the memory bring to mind pictures from guides or National Geographic where brown and red cruising boats slowly move across mist woven landscape of hundreds of rocky islands rising from the calm sea.

To see that one has to first pass a two kilometer concrete bridge that takes the bus to the harbor and new marina proudly presenting massive photo of 2009 Miss World contestants and a model of a future development of this large island which reminds me a bit of Dubai where ambitious architecture is created in the middle of a desert. The marina is lacking any feel, it’s a simple rectangle flanked from both sides by modern housing that looks nice but completely lifeless as there seem to be nobody living there yet.

We’re taken by a small motorboat to the cruiser ship named Opera and the inside is very nice and kept in the old feel - large, comfortable wooden cabins, three decks, small romantic tables on both sides to privately enjoy the evening view. Shame only that all the boats here were ordered to be painted white from the outside and in this way lost a lot from the original romanticism. Now they look uniform and touristy.

Halong Bay itself though doesn’t disappoint and you can stare for hours at the steep rocky walls coming out of the sea everywhere around. It’s beautiful and calm, the mist covers the horizon so you never know how if the opening you see is the open ocean or yet another group of islands. Small fishing boats pass from time to time and all you can do is to let this overwhelming stillness of landscape take over. One of the legends says that this place was created by a dragon taking off and whipping his tail and it’s hard to disagree. I imagine those steep rocky walls must be great for climbing and I wish I could try that here.

Instead we’re following the cruise program which involves kayaking, visiting a viewing point with a small beach and a gigantic cave the next day. The first of those is a great experience as you paddle between the islands and underneath cave passages and around houses in a floating village. The cave - called Amazing Cave - lives up to its name 100%. It’s enormous and every next of the three chambers is bigger - in the final one you could easily park two or three commercial planes and still have room. I can’t imagine what must the first explorers of this place have felt seeing this for the first time. My impression was that the mountain is simply hollow inside.

I leave Halong Bay as I arrived - with mixed feelings. I’m stunned by the natural beauty of this place but a bit disappointed by the way people are monetizing it. Right now Halong Bay is a UNESCO protected area, one of the natural wonders of the world which is good but it’s not going to save it from over eager businessman who think concrete and kitsch billboards are what tourists want to see or the government who thinks that unifying the look of everything will make this place more magical. It won’t, it’s already lost a lot comparing to cheap postcard pictures I find in the crafts supermarket on the way back.