Halong is forever
KRIPOTKIN - Alfred A. Yuson (The Philippine Star) - February 28, 2016 - 9:00am

That’s what it seemed to take to reach Halong Bay from Hanoi: forever. Actually it was only four hours, as our coach driver chose to be particularly cautious in negotiating the 165 kilometers to Quang Ninh Province and the Gulf of Tonkin in northeast Vietnam.

Halfway, we had a half-hour stop at a showcase marble factory and one-stop shop, where disabled young people were engaged in turning out crafts products. But the silk wear, place mats, pillowcases, weasel coffee packs and all other souvenirs were obviously at tourist prices. I wound up with just a small bottle of Hanoi Vodka at close to half-a-million dong.

Bright Leaf awardee for agricultural photography Dave Leprozo Jr. asked as we were about to board the bus again if I was opening it for the rest of the trip. No, it’s for a son back home, I said. You’re giving your son rot gut? The driver didn’t quite agree, as he made a thumbs-up sign upon seeing it in my hand. From what I could make of his appreciative commentary, the drink was very popular not just with natives of his occupation.

Right before reaching our destination, another stop was made at a seaside pearl factory, where the Vietnam and Japan Pearl Cooperation was founded in 1993, exactly a century after Kokichi Mikimoto succeeded in producing the world’s first cultured pearl. Five years later, the Vietnamese gained pearl implanting technology.

While the ladies in our touring party of Bright Leaf Agricultural Journalism awardees, the sponsoring PMFTC Inc. officials, contest judges and media consorts went through all the paces  — from watching the manual technology of implantation to the grading and sorting of the natural pearls, to salivating at the showcase hall exhibiting finished products — I picked up critical knowledge from one of the large wall posters sharing literature on pearls.

Hey, this item on necklace lengths is essential for any romantic male: if it’s of 12” length, it’s billed as a Collar; 16” is a Choker; 18” is a Princess; 24” is a Matinee; 30” is an Opera; and 45” up is a Rope. I assume that the last has nothing to do with giving a length to hang oneself with.

Twenty more minutes and we crossed a causeway to an island where we disembarked before what looked to be a newly developed wharf. Scores of boats, of two and three decks, were berthed side by side along the pier. Ours was the Hailong Dream, its lower deck made out as a dining room, while the upper deck was for lounging and viewing al fresco.

Soon we set out on the cruise, towards clusters of limestone karst islands reminiscent of our very own El Nido and Coron cruising areas in Palawan. In a word, we found ourselves in a postcard-pretty world, with the still wintry weather often casting a misty, mystical aura on the intriguing seascape.

The professional photographers in our group — namely Bright Leaf Hall-of-Famer as Oriental Leaf (five-time) awardee Mau Victa, Frank Cimatu, Dave Leprozo, Jr., all from Baguio, and Ruben Gonzaga and Henrylito Tacio of Mindanao had a heyday recording memorable images throughout the four-hour cruise.

The entire area covers all of 1,553 sq. km. and includes 1,969 islands, of which 90 percent are limestone. The core zone covers 434 sq. km., including 775 islands within the boundaries of Day Go island (in the west), Dau Be island (in the south) and Cong Tay island (in the east). In 1962, it was established as a historical and cultural relic and classified as a National Landscape Site by the Ministry of Culture and Information.

Subsequently, the core zone was twice recognized by UNESCO — as a Natural World Heritage Site in 1994 for its aesthetic value, and in 2000 for its geology and geomorphology value. In 2009, Halong Bay was designated as a Special National Landscape Site, and in 2012, as one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature in 2012 as declared by Bernard Weber.

Highlights of the popular Halong Bay cruise include treks to the numerous caves found in some of the larger islands. We had the privilege of climbing up over a hundred steps to the entrance of the largest and what is considered as the most beautiful grotto that is Dau Go Cave.

 

 

 

 

Inside was a series of chambers with elegant, well-placed lighting, subtly bathing the spectacular stalactites and stalagmites in vivid colors. At the center of the cavern is a humongous hall the size of half a hectare, with the height of its dome reaching 25 meters.

Archeological research into these magnificent sites proves that Halong is one of the cradles of humankind. All the caves in the limestone islands were created starting in the Pleistocene epoch a couple of million years ago — somewhat giving validity to the group punning during the boat cruise: indeed, that Halong is forever.

For everyone in the Bright Leaf group, it was the major highlight of our four-day visit to Hanoi as the bonus prize for the 2015 contest winners. For the boys, discovering the hearty taste of Beerlao over dinner at a Laotian restaurant, then Hanoi beer at the classy Wild Lotus restaurant for our last dinner together, would probably have to be rated as the next major highlights.

Then there was the whole of Day 4 devoted to street shopping at the Old Quarter, only a 15-minute walk from the French Quarter where our historic Sofitel Metropole Hotel was located. Speaking of which, on the day before we checked out, some of us lucked in on being at the lobby when a party that included Hollywood stars Samuel L. Jackson and John Goodman was checking in.

The North Face jackets and bags were the premium take-home items as economical overruns, together with Kipling backpacks and dongs-a-dozen embroidered ladies’ wallets. Nike editions, Ho Chi Minh hats (what we used to call “Sebastopol”), and caps and tees with the uniquitous red star also filled up shopping bags.

Over lunch on Hailong Dream during our Ha Long Bay cruise, we Pinoy journalists expressed various opinions on why Vietnam outranks us with tourist arrivals, at about eight million to our supposed 5 million, including Balikbayans.

We had marveled at what we saw of clean, fresh infrastructure: extended flyovers, multi-lane highways, particularly impressive of which was the one that led from the capital to the new international airport, over a kilometer-long bridge that was as stately as it was well-illuminated. And we sighed repeatedly over the fact that we import Vietnamese rice, fields for which were a regular roadside feature on the ride to Halong Bay.

This remains as the precious take of insight on the part of agri journalists who compete for and win the Bright Leaf Awards on a yearly basis. Previous bonus trips had been to Ho Chi Minh City, KL, Guangzhou, Bali and Beijing. In each destination, Pinoy writers and photographers come away with curious comparisons with our own cities. And we wonder how long, hopefully not forever, it’ll take for our own environment to be regarded just as favorably.

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