Islands puncture the green waters like dragon teeth, stretching high above my head. Pointy canines, massive molars and expansive incisors complete the jaw. Some are bare while others are covered in vegetation like the remains of some ancient meal. Rock surfaces are stained yellow in parts, deep scratches carving diagonally along their sides.
Our tour boat, a guppy in the mouth of this beast, casually swims with a school of others from tooth to tooth. Despite the crowd, silence mercifully dominates the audio landscape. I listen attentively, imagining the winds that wash over me to be the breath of the creature that now holds us in its mouth.
We stop along one of the more impressive molars to inspect dental needs. What is revealed behind the few trees and rocks is stunning. A massive cavity has eaten away, forming echo filled caverns that reach some hundred feet overhead. The cave walls are in parts smooth and in others like fossils. The ceiling is strikingly different; more like the surface of the moon than the earth. Green, blue and yellow lights illuminate the walls and pockets as we explore. The cave’s name, ‘Surprising’, was coined by the French who found it in the early 1900s. Unimaginative as the name is, it’s accurate, but ignores the beauty of the space.
The name ‘Ha Long’ meaning ‘Descending Dragon’ is much more evocative; the locals seems to have more flare for the dramatic than the French in this matter. Susana called it ‘Enter the Dragon’ to steal the title of the legendary Bruce Lee movie.
At night, sitting on the waters, the teeth are clearly reflected at you, illuminated by the full moon overhead. Only the lights from the other lingering boats nearby interrupt the dark silhouettes beyond. We spend our night ‘squid fishing’ with bamboo rods off the back end of the boat. The futility makes it feel more like an inside joke played at the tourists’ expense. Beers and the surrounding beauty of the landscape muffle the humour of it all. Fellow travelers share stories and experiences in the darkness.
Our young Australian dinner table partners, Mel and Ben, make conversation with some of the group of eager drinking Polish men that fill the other cabins on our boat. Apparently the Polish group of over a dozen men are part of an informal traveling club started a number of years ago when they all worked together. They travel as a group annually, alternating each year between bringing their wives on the one and – as one of them put it – “having fun” on the other. Their last trip was to Burma which was quite good but filled with “curious and inquisitive questions from the local military”. Not surprising. Vietnam must feel like a relative bastion of freedom in comparison.
I make a note for future travel destinations before heading off to bed for dreams of flying dragons and hidden treasures in caves.