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Sea of sleeping dragons in halong bay

Hanoi is star is on the rise but it is Halong Bay that is the city is premier tourist attraction. A few hours east of the capital, the atmosphere at the place of descending dragons couldnot be more different from the burgeoning metropolis.
I am on board the wooden junk Bhaya Classic III which is a cruise in Ha Long Bay languidly through a menagerie of monoliths which rise like broken teeth out of the pale green waters of the South China Sea. The karst islets have been named elephant, fighting cock, wading ox and the kissing rocks by fisherman who have trawled these waters for fish and molluscs for thousands of years and by the Chinese who have used Halong Bay to launch invasions. Each time they have been repelled by Vietnamese ingenuity rather than by any magical powers the locals say are imbued in the grey shapes. They believe the islets were formed when a family of dragons, sent by the gods to repel the Chinese, spat a protective wall of jade and jewel into the bay. The dragons then settled at Halong Bay and remain sleeping.

The scientific explanation is not so romantic. It says the karst islets are the remnants of a flooded and dissolved mountain range. There is also conjecture on just how many there are. The empirical count is about 3000. But ask any local and you will get the number 1969 - the year of the death of Ho Chi Minh, the father of modern-day Vietnam. But the beauty of the ancient forms is beyond debate. No two are the same. Most are mottled with vegetation and are being further degraded by roots. Some are too small to support life, while others are home to isolated populations of bantams, antelopes and monkeys.

There are cavernous islets and a few are merely elevated rock pools. Sailing between them is an antidote to busy Hanoi for Halong is as somnolent as it is picturesque. The shell middens of the Soi Nhu people found on some of the bigger islands date back 18,000 years and the bay still supports floating villages. We leave Bhaya Classic III taking a short motorboat ride to a pontoon and then on to a rowing boat. Between a clutch of islands, the village of Vong Vieng, population 250, floats on blue plastic barrels which are vivid against the gloomy sea. Some of the houses are in isolated clusters. All are colorful and easily seen, spread low among the great monoliths. A few have fish farms attached, others are just a domicile.

Bamboo beams stretch the length of one jetty where a dog lies on a porch, head on its paws. Every house has a dog and they serve three roles - they are used to hunt animals such as antelopes; they protect the floating villages; and they are eaten. Perhaps the sleeping dog was resigned to the latter for others are more active. One runs to the end of the wooden landing, eyes the water, looks at us in the boat, glances back at the water, then turns, deciding it is all too hard. At another house, a man lies in a hammock, trying to ignore a little dog tied to a post whose barks echo around the bay. We paddle under a huge arch formed by one of the islands. Heavy drops of water leach through the rock, landing with a thud on the boat. Our oarsman doesnot speak any English but gestures that myself and four other passengers should have a photo taken in front of the arch.

It is a difficult exposure. He has a bright sky, jet black rock and light bouncing off the water to contend with but he is adamant and motions for us to move left, then right, then a little left again while he maneuvers the boat with one hand on the oar. And then, after carefully focusing the SLR he is commandeered, he nails a perfectly exposed photo. In one sheltered bay, there is barely a whisper of wind and all is quiet but for the motorboats. Steps lead through the mangroves and up the cliff face to Sung Sot or Surprise Grotto, a gargantuan three-chambered cave complex of lakes, and delicate rock formations which are like clumps of candle wax. As with the islets, most have been named - the lion, elephant, the cat and Buddha.

Although the caves have been known to fishermen for eons, they were only rediscovereded by the French at the turn of the last century and were used as a Viet Cong arms dump during the Vietnam War. A wooden junk enters the bay and the serenity is broken as a gaggle of Chinese tourists disembark, led by a tour guide squawking through a loudhailer. His voice bounces around the bay growing more frenzied as his charges climb the steps towards the cave. A flick of a switch has transformed a tranquil scene into a race meeting. It is enough to wake a sleeping dragon.