Five hundred million years of erosion have transformed the limestone isles of Ha Long Bay into a ghostly armada of strange landforms. | Per-Andre Hoffmann/Photolibrary
"The pillars...seemed to be spelling out some kind of ideograph of the sort only necromancers of the Tao could fathom."
—novelist Robert Stone, on Ha Long Bay
Seen through a shroud of mist, the limestone pillars of Ha Long Bay could be the skyscrapers of Wall Street. But the only occupants here are mangroves, animals, and fishermen, and the only sound is of wooden hulls plying placid waters. We are expatriate rock climbers, Americans mostly, fleeing frenetic Hanoi for the splendor of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It took five hours of bus and boat rides to reach this assembly of 2,000-odd islands and islets in the Gulf of Tonkin. As midday sunlight pushes through clouds, we eat fresh squid on the deck of our chartered boat. When the food settles, we paddle kayaks toward the limestone pillars.
The rock feels stubbly, like my late grandfather's chin. I am no match for it. After 20 vertical feet, my shaking arms give their notice, and I tumble backward.
Splash. Then calm.
In our kayaks, we enter a water cave. Our bows advance until our heads graze stalactites. Considered against the day's emerging brightness, this wet darkness feels vaguely clandestine. Seven centuries ago, Vietnamese sailors might have waited in this very place to ambush a Chinese fleet.
We paddle on, toward an uninhabited islet, where a painted dragon watches us pull ashore. He's guarding a squat, shuttered pagoda at the islet's edge. No incense burns here. A white cat sits on the dragon's scales, purring fiercely, asking, What have you come for? The pagoda has seen thousands of unwelcome visitors: Mongol invaders, U.S. warplanes.
As dusk shuffles off the horizon, squid boats glide by en route to open seas. Soon their dangling lanterns look like stars. We're alone now, but we share these waters with history's ghosts. —Mike Ives