By Aaron Smith, Contributing Reporter
VIETNAM – An old fable tells that Halong Bay was formed when a giant dragon came down from the mountains and dove into the South China Sea, the flick of its tail forming the more than 3,000 islands. A Unesco World Heritage Site, this natural wonder is unarguably the jewel in Vietnam’s crown.
Putting around on our wooden junk-hotel, we marveled at the monolithic crags of limestone rising from the jade-green sea, the hidden coves and the platinum-white beaches. I half expected to bump into Captain Jack Sparrow and the Black Pearl in these waters.
Landing on one of Halong Bay’s islands allowed us to explore some of the terrestrial terrain. Cycling through hidden valleys and past rice paddies, smiling village kids, roadside chickens and sleeping dogs revealed a relaxed pace of life unlike the frenetic madness of much of Vietnam. Our local guide, a wiry 56-year-old farmer, led us through the jungle pointing out medicinal and poisonous plants and subtely scaring off the occasional snake unbeknownst to reptilian phobic Vivi.
As we made out way through a bat-infested cave, our guide explained in his limited English and by drawing dates in the sand that in 1966 he had lived there as a small boy with his parents as America dumped some of the fifteen million tons of bombs dropped during the war.
He showed us the piles of old snail shells indicating their primary food source at the time and explained how six of the villagers had been killed. He then told us how as a teenager he was sent to fight for the Viet Cong in Saigon where he was shot three times in the leg.
Despite the death and destruction he had endured, he had nothing but warmth in his heart as he hugged us and shook our hands saying, “All friends now.” On the secret of his vitality, he revealed, “snake wine,” and upon returning to his bungalow he produced a jar of homebrew containing two Tiger Snakes marinated in rice wine.
He poured me a shot which I sheepishly sipped to be polite. It tasted like moonshine with a pungent, fetid-flesh flavor and a heady bouquet of paint thinner that slammed the olfactory senses like a freight train.
Many of Halong Bay’s dome-like islands reminded Vivi of Rio’s Pão de Açucar and the home she’s left behind. As an Asian sun sank into the South China Sea, we both reflected over gin and tonics about our journey that was also drawing to a close.
Although the dragon’s tail that formed this magical landscape has long since sunk into mythology, fisherman folklore is still full of tales of the Tarasque, a Loch Ness-like monster that reputedly still haunts these waters. Finishing off my drink in the fading light, I saw in the corner of my eye, a splash of what looked like a tail. Pondering the mysteries of the deep, I wondered if the snake wine had surreptitiously slithered into my psyche.
Senhor and Senhora Smith are from different worlds; he, Aaron Smith, an Australian travel writer, still idolizes his childhood idol, Indiana Jones, and she, Viviane Silva, is a sassy Carioca ‘Sex in the City’ girl. They have decided to embark upon a trans-continental four-month honeymoon BEFORE they get married, from Bogota to New York, the Far East and Australia by bus, boat and donkey. Follow them along the Gringo Trail – it’s an epic Clash of the Titans journey to (hopefully) marital bliss at the end of the road.
For more info on Aaron’s writing check out: www.jetsetvagabond.com
To read Viviane’s blog go to: www.varaujo.wordpress.com