Hype is a tenuous phenomenon.
We are creatures driven by word-of-mouth. When something is widely considered to be ‘amazing’, ‘spectacular’ or ‘breathtaking’, people flock in droves to go experience it. We, collectively, give birth to hype.
At times this hype can grow bigger than the attraction itself. It becomes a garish, all-encompassing beast adorned with five stars and lavish praise, trampling on the modest reality of things. This beast forces you into its corner. It strips you of your opinions. It puts its words into your mouth, and you become a vessel for spreading more hype around. And, no matter what you honestly, truly think about the thing at the hype’s core, the legacy floats around like the air we breathe. Don’t raise your eyebrow – believe the hype.
Often what’s being publicised can become entirely separated from its own publicity. There are numerous tales of tourists eagerly ready to follow the backpacker trail, only to find themselves disappointed once they get there. The infamous beach parties on Thailand’s islands; badly treated elephants in Chiang Mai; the growing urbanisation of Sapa. A vicious cycle hovers over hyped-up tourist spots. They get popular, bring in more tourists and get corrupted in attempts to catch up with the demands of such popularity.
Yet what if hype can be maintained and channeled to the attraction’s benefit?
Many organisations are using the popularity of their respective attractions to create sustainable changes. Jobs are created for local people who may otherwise offer ‘cowboy’ tours with little regulation. Changes and rules have been set to make visits more environmentally friendly (e.g Taman Negara rainforest’s eco-tours). Educational programs have been placed to guide visitors and locals alike towards a healthy maintenance of their attractions.
If tamed, hype can be a loyal, powerful servant that drives the economy and lives up to its name.
Vietnam’s biggest hype-machine is Ha Long Bay, a prime example of the positives and negatives that come with being so spectacular.
I went to Ha Long Bay on a recent trip, following a trail of hype that others left in their wake.
Ha Long Bay is 1500 kilometers of deep green ocean, limestone islets and rich, endemic biodiversity.
Located in Northern Vietnam, Quảng Ninh Province, the bay is known to locals as Vịnh Hạ Long – translated quite literally as ‘descending dragon bay’.
The legend behind the name centers around Vietnam’s beginnings as a country. At this time, foreign invaders threatened the existence of the ancient civilisation. In response to this, a family of dragons were sent to protect the population. They descended from heaven into the bay, spitting out jewels and forming a barricade. These jewels formed into the 2,000 islets jutting out of Ha Long Bay’s waters.
This rich folklore of war and dragons is entrenched in Vietnamese culture, and as such the karst landscape is regarded as precious as the jewels from the mouths of the fiery beasts.
It is a mystical place. Ethereal, mystifying, spectacular. Like continental shards, the islets rest proudly above the emerald water, revealing patches of rock and jungle in the midst of the open sea. It is life deconstructed, reassembled and surviving in the most wonderful of ways. There’s nowhere on Earth quite like it.
There’s a reason that Ha Long Bay is as hyped as it is. To see it for yourself, you’re going to need a boat.
I arrived in Ha Long City after a three-hour drive from Ha Noi. The bus stopped just outside the dock, which has been developed to accommodate the millions of visitors that come here every year. It’s freaking busy. Buses are parking up left and right, with international visitors spilling out in pursuit of their lanyard-wearing guides. Stalls line the boat station gate, while pushy vendors yell “Madam, Sir, you buy!” in an entrepreneurial chorus.
Inside the boat station we are told to wait while our guide, Jack, went to get the tickets included as part of our tour.
Unless you want to build a raft, the only way to visit Ha Long Bay is through an organised tour. Tours vary from the dodgy budget, to party booze-cruises, to luxury-liners. Since I was a) averse to rats, b) wanting to enjoy the natural beauty without drinking sambuca out of someone’s belly button and c) not a millionaire, I opted for a mid-level tour with Ethnic Travel (2 days, 1 night), which cost me a reasonable $150. For you budget travelers out there, heed the warning that a visit to Ha Long Bay requires you to fork out a little more cash for a decent tour. It may be tempting to hitch a ride on the back of a junk-boat for $30, but believe me you’ll be wishing you were on land again after bad service sours the trip and the six-legged stowaways come out to play. Vietnam is very affordable in other ways, including its accommodation and food options. So put that money you’ve been scrimping towards a better boat, okcurr?
Once our tickets were obtained we made our way to the dock. Past the throngs of backpacked visitors lie rows and rows of white boats. Each boat is defined only from the tour company logo emblazoned on its hull like a seafaring crest. Without these logos, all you’ve got is the same white boat.
The story goes that only a few years ago these boats were coloured fantastic shades of pink, green and yellow. A nautical rainbow. These colours were stripped away following a boating accident in 2011, when one passenger carrier collided with another. In response to this tragic event, the government decreed that all boats be painted white. This ensures their visibility in a landscape that has cloudy tendencies.
The dock is a crowded, dirty place with little of the magic promised in your Lonely Planet Guide. Here, the effects of mass tourism are rampant. People are ferried off in large groups, past stone-faced officials and cigarette-puffing seamen. The limestone islets seem a distant vision far, far away, as your eyes focus on the rotting debris in the water at your feet.
However, once your boat sets out towards the karst, the landscape becomes a gradually more beautiful setting.
Sitting on the deck, a Bia Ha Noi in hand and a soft breeze ruffling the pages of a good book, we watch the white crowd of boats get smaller on one side as the horizon engulfs us on the other.
Distance, it seems, makes everything better.
About half an hour into the journey, spectacular visions begin to emerge.
The day was not a clear one. Low visibility meant that the limestone islets appeared as shadows in the foggy distance, tantalising onlookers with things that were yet to come. We were at the edge of the familiar, between regulated tourist ports and utter wilderness. It looked, and felt, as if we were sailing into an ancient era. The lost world.
And, before you know it, a great limestone cliff rears its massive bulk starboard. Like the back of a stone titan, the isle sits above the water, towering over our little white boat. All of its edges and crevices are there, a high-definition portrait of the ebb and wear of time and weather. It has the chalk-grey wrinkles of a wise old man. Patches of lush green vegetation give the islet a surge of life, booming with the calls of birds and insects. In such grand, ancient stillness is a taste of vitality. Isolated, imposing, incredible.
The boat chugs past one islet and next to another. Suddenly the cloudy gates open.
We have entered the karst.
“It feels like Jurassic Park”, says a fellow tourist. He’s not wrong. This does feel like a land of dragons and dinosaurs.
The islets are now upon us. Rising out of the sea in a myriad of shapes. A gathering of grey and green, as if the old, rocky masses were meeting in ritual. They form coves, bays and arches. It is a landscape sans land. A beautiful, watery wonder.
We sit and watch for hours.
The boat drops anchor betwixt the walls of several islets. I am handed a bright orange life-jacket and told to go below deck. We’re going kayaking.
After a wobbly episode trying to sit inside my kayak, I’m handed a paddle and told to set off towards the others. It’s go time.
It feels awesome to be in the water, bobbing up and down to the waves of Ha Long Bay. You’re in it, not looking from a vantage point, and the sights, smells and sounds intensify. It’s definitely salt-water, I think, as my oar splashes a mouthful of water in my face. Paddling left turns your boat right, paddling right turns your boat left – rules which take a little time to master. Pretty soon the succession of right, left, right, left steers the kayak forwards and along the trail of other rowers ahead.
Jack (our guide) paddles around a large radius of the bay, allowing the scenery to speak for itself. When you’re at the level of the water, the sheer size of the karst is breathtaking. You can see them for their true scale, towering above the kayaks as if the boats were scattered M&M’s. They are gigantic things, all their unique edges, arches and bays amplified up close. It is tempting to paddle up to a nearby beach and explore, as I was wishing to do – but Jack put a quick stop to my brief adventure.
“Dangerous!” he said. Considering that these islets have developed completely out of man’s way, he was most likely right for telling me off. Who knows how treacherous the landscape is, or what is crawling under the brush.
As our group paddled, gazing at the haphazard walls of limestone before us, something unexpected happened. As I went to paddle on my left side, I notice something big and pink right up next my kayak. I whack it accidentally with my oar and lift it a little out of the water.
A huge. ass. jellyfish.
Quickly I paddle forward, away from that gelatinous reminder that this is indeed the ocean.
Jack steers us around the bend of a great islet, revealing a grand natural archway formed within the karst.
“Go in”, he says paddling ahead. It gets chilly all of a sudden in the shadow. We power through, gazing at the formation of the rock face to our sides and above our heads. This is adventure. We’re underneath a wonder of the world. We’re inside a dragon’s jewel.
On the other side of the archway it’s eerily clear. No limestone islets in sight. Just miles and miles of open ocean. And probably aggressive pink jellyfish.
That night we sleep on the boat.
Before bed a few of us traveling strangers decide to mingle on the top deck. We sit on lounge chairs, sipping beers and swapping stories. The boat crew have decided to go bat fishing. The lights from the boat attract a ton of bugs, which wild bats swoop in from the black sky to munch on. From the deck you can see a cartoonish fishing net poking out from the kitchen window, swiping at the creatures of the night. It’s a strange evening’s entertainment.
The backdrop for this eve of bat fishing and beer sipping is the karst enclave that the boat has docked in. We are nesting in the arms of the islets. It’s an amazing feeling to be here, to have scenery as otherworldly as this before you. All of my inhibitions seemed to have dissolved that night. I felt completely and utterly at ease, engrossed in the setting sun and limestone silhouettes. They say dragons from heaven made this place. At that time I would have believed the hype.