We sit on the patio of our lavish ship as the sun fades behind the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tokin. My mother lights a cigarette. She doesn’t normally smoke, nor do I. Downstairs in the dining area, a drunken, newlywed couple from France sings karaoke. The sound hangs repugnant in the air, a foul smell refusing to shift. The bartender looks on; the others clear the tables.
The sun melts into puddles of different shades of red and orange. Around us rise dozens of karst peaks from the ocean floor— each one wind and rain cut. They are menacing. Ominous. Foreboding.
The boat softly rocks; around us float several other ships each anchored for the night. They glow.
We are a small city at sea, each boat a boisterous barrio.
In the distance, I see fishermen and fisherwomen pull up their nets and return to their homes. People live on these islands. Our guide tells us they struggle to survive. The darkness blankets us; the gargantuan peaks stay still. I hope.
Vietnamese sailors speak of the Tarasque—a prehistoric leviathan, a Moby Dick, a sea dragon of gigantic proportions. They say she protects the waters of Halong Bay, hunting underneath the fleet of tourist vessels and haunting awestruck visitors wearing heavy, clicking cameras.
She has defended Vietnam forever. Legends hold that Tarasque formed the limestone shards from love. As a shield against foreign tongues. As a well-knuckled fist blocking malicious marauders from breeching the shore. And after she sharpened them with her spiky tail, she sank deep into the murk, awaiting another clarion call and to rise again in riotous retribution.
Some tourists rent their own Chinese-style junk boats and go off in search of the mythical creature. Some return, others no.
The drunken singing intensifies. I can hear loud laughter emanating from another boat. The sound bounces out to the night before being silenced.
Will she come?
In 1994, UNESCO declared the bay a World Heritage Site. In 2011, a budget cruise boat sank claiming the lives of eleven tourists and one Vietnamese tour guide.
Peace always returns to Vietnam one way or another. A balance resumes.
The next morning, we dock at a small island with a lovely strip of sand. Some go to the beach; others climb to a lookout. From above, a row of stony islets descend in order of height—tallest, tall, short, shortest—as if drowning one by one in the sea. They resemble a monster or are, maybe, a monster.
Descending as steadily and stealthily as a hunter, the chimera glides underneath the water encircling our boat and entrapping its prey. Our cruise ship bobs over the creature’s grisly head, its teeth white and sharp and ready just below the calm, green surface. Above rise those magnificent peaks.
Silence returns to Halong.
And from where once cities floated and voices sang, now a hush sleeps, cradling the mountains and softening the seas.