Saturday, 15 March 2014

Forget Man-Made Structures or Attractions, Nature Beckons...

Nowadays when I travel, I prefer going on a hike and a boat trip rather than shop or visit museums. It's impossible to resist the green lungs of the nature reserves, the scenic beauty of the mountains, the aquamarine blue of oceans and rivers that beckon, and the mystery of caves that have existed centuries ago

I have yet to meet anyone who hates the gentle caress of the wind on their skin, the fleeting screech of a seagull or the soothing sounds of waves crashing on the beach.

It is said that reminiscing comes with age. So it is that my appreciation of the amazing wonders of nature has kept pace with the grey hairs that merrily spread their territorial claim on my head.

I pay more attention now to the rich diversity of wildlife, flora and fauna. The traditions and simple - or challenged - lives of the people and homes I visited. The rich history that has bound and defined existing customs and traditions. Most of all, it's the peace and quiet away from the humdrum of busy city life that I sometimes crave. I get this when I go on such "breaks". 

Many trekking trails in the
mountainous north,
with a small town
My nature sojourns are my way of coping with stress. Recollections of such holidays I will always hold dear, and I hope they will never fade like the pages of an old and tattered book.

Over the past year, I had my Kodak moments of sojourns to Borneo's Gaya Island in Sabah, to Noosa on Australia's Sunshine Coast, both of which I blogged about.  

Most recently, I was captivated by Sapa and Halong Bay in north Vietnam. Especially my overnight stay on the Victory Star, one of many Victorian-day replica ships that cruise the tranquil waters of Halong Bay. 
 Some balancing act!
The tribes in Sapa depend on farming and tourism for a living

Victory Star

Its marketing brochure describes the Victory Star as a luxurious and classic style junk cruise. I was't expecting much, after a rather harrowing 10-hour train ride to and from Sapa in Vietnam's mountainous north (which I'd rather not describe).

The Victory Star was close to a 5-star floating resort. At least in my experience, it was luxury accommodation unexpected. Do your research on TripAdvisor  though, which, to be expected, gives both glowing and not-so-good reviews. 

Close-up view of balcony rooms on Victory Star
Scenic view from the balcony

Our reward was a spacious and clean room with a balcony that has enough room for two to move around, an equally spacious bathroom you would expect in a 4-star hotel  - and a view to kill! The food onboard was good too, although the waiting staff wasn't up to scratch.

It was like a mini UN onboard with folks from Russia, Scotland, France, Poland, China and my fellow Singaporeans. The captain, a French national whose name is Philippe Royer, was  a commanding yet friendly and eager-to-serve personality type. Overall, the service wasn't exactly 5-star but acceptable. With good food and an enthusiastic young crew, I wasn't inclined to complain.

The Legend of Halong

It was my second time in Halong Bay since 2003, yet the sights have not lost their mesmerizing magic.

Halong Bay deserves its UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Nestled in the Gulf of Tonkin, it has some 1,600 islands and islets that form a spectacular seascape of limestone pillars. 

Not many of us know about the mystery of Halong, which means "descending dragon". According to legend, Vietnam had to fight fierce invaders from the north through the sea. Feeling sorry for the country, the Jade Emperor sent the Mother Dragon and her kids to earth to help the ancient Vietnamese folks defend themselves.

The Mother Dragon and her kids burnt the enemies with their divine fire and giant emeralds. The emeralds were scattered around the battlefield on the sea and formed an invincible defensive wall. After thousands of years, emerald "wall" turned into islands and islets of varying sizes and shapes.

Believe the legend or not, close-up Halong Bay is a spectacular sight to behold!  If it's not, it should be on your list of 1,000 places to go before you die. 

Now that I've done Halong Bay twice, I plan to venture further for a date with the aurora borealis (the northern lights) or aurora australis (southern lights). 

Where I go next, it will still be the lure of nature. Dancing lights in the skies, some day it will be you!

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