I’m trying to conjure visions of Halong Bay hundreds of years ago, even decades, before tourism got it. I think I glimpsed it tonight when we motored way beyond the madding crowd and floated, blessedly alone, past island after fantastical island thick with green and secrets.
I could stand with my elbows on the curved wood railing of our quaint little balcony and gaze and imagine as we slid past. The moon is my only companion; everyone else is asleep. The only sound the water lapping at the junk and the creak of the wood planks beneath my barefeet. I have to force myself to ease open the heavy wooden seaworthy door, climb into my floating bed and try to sleep.
The next morning the bay is alive with craft, some mirror images of the Halong Jasmine, others portraying a more realistic picture of life as it has been lived for centuries in this ancient waterscape.
And, yes, there is a world of difference between the small, elite group on our luxury junk -- doing the tourist route, despite what the brochures say -- and the real people of the bay. Their crafts are small, light, some impossibly rustic, more a part of the water than on it.
The tourist traffic in the bay is much the same as it is everywhere; a very mixed blessing. Junks like ours mean business to the locals. Our luxury mobile island, towering regally above them, is constantly the target of traders hoping to sell standard tourist goods made of shell and other local materials. Very few people buy.
Some craft are laden with packaged goods: biscuits, chips, chocolate and other snacks. We try to be interested but the prices are high and the junk we're on is all-inclusive -- there’s too much food and the one thing we’re not is peckish.
I try not to think of the environmental impact of this constant tourist traffic on the bay. The Jasmine has sails, beautiful shell-shaped ones. I was taken with the online image of the junk in full sail. In our two and a half day cruise they were never raised. The vessel motored everywhere. I tried to garner support for my disappointment in the choice of noisy, polluting fuel over wind power but few of my fellow passengers seemed to notice and the crew members I asked were perplexed by my protest which, to be honest, verged on outrage. It is one thing to sail around this mystical seascape, it’s quite another to cough and rumble. What happens to all the fuel these gorgeous creatures regurgitate? Again no-one seemed perturbed.
Everyone was here to get away from it all. It seemed bad form to remind them it was flawed by things that could be changed, if enough people protested. Much like the rest of life it was too easy to be distracted. We, most of us, were all too ready to pretend that we floated through this magnificent dream without leaving a trace.