Karsting Away in Vietnam
Story and photos by Michael Buckley

A Southeast Asia guidebook author finds dragon legends, pirate coves, and mysterious shapes while exploring the karst limestone landscapes of northern Vietnam.

I thought I knew the place, knew it really well. As the writer of a guidebook to Vietnam, I have covered large swathes of the country in far more detail than I ever wanted to––in the course of numerous research trips. But shift a few degrees, move around the corner, and you can come up with something totally unexpected.

On my last foray into northern Vietnam, I stumbled across a handful of stunning karst landscape regions. These are known to the Vietnamese, but right off the foreign tourist map. Karst landscapes, sculpted by wind and water over millennia, have inspired generations of Vietnamese poets and painters. On a more practical note, karst limestone formations offer terrific potential for adventure sports: kayaking, climbing, caving, hiking and mountain–biking. And, of course, great opportunities for photography.

Trolling for Dragon Pearls
Kayaking toward big black bubbles bobbing in the water, we were intercepted by a motorboat. The man at the helm waved us away. The black bubbles were part of a pearl farming operation. The pearl farmers have many secrets, shrugged Trung, our guide. And so does this region, honeycombed with hidden caves and strange vegetation clinging to sheer cliff–faces: orchids and cycads. The region is riddled in caves––some huge caves have only recently found, and likely there are many more still to discover.

karst map

Trung regales us with stories about these bizarre karst formations. According to legend, in 1288, when the Vietnamese were under imminent attack from sea–faring Mongols, celestial dragons intervened and fractured the landscape into myriad islands to impede their progress and cause them to lose their way. The Vietnamese used caves as hideouts from which to attack the Mongol fleet. In fact, Vietnam is one of only two nations ever to stop a Mongol advance (the other nation was Japan, but that was more a matter of luck––the approaching Mongol fleet was decimated by a typhoon).

Other versions have it that the celestial dragons spat out pearls, which became karst islets. In geographic terms, the Godzilla at work here is wind and water, sculpting the limestone over millions of years. Although fishing and coal mining are the major industries around these islands, other curious industries have prospered. Piracy has a long tradition: continuing on in this vein today is the smuggling of goods from China like bootleg CDs, DVDs, and cigarettes. Silicate (glass) is made on the island of Dao Quan Lan; pearl prospecting thrives off Dao Co To. Close to some islands are rich abalone grounds, where mother–of–pearl is obtained for use in the making of Vietnamese lacquerware. On far–flung islets, daredevil climbers mount precarious bamboo ladders to collect sea–swallow nests from the roof of vast caves. These nests are highly prized for use in medicinal soup. Unfortunately, limestone is a key ingredient in cement, a product in big demand in Vietnam. Sometimes we came across karst peaks that had been chomped like an apple, quarried for their limestone and rock. Where karst landscape disappears, inevitably rice fields will take over.

In high season, the famed World Heritage Site of Halong Bay is very crowded, with a flotilla of tour boats creating marine traffic jams at key viewpoints or caves. Caving and kayaking are the big things here––traipsing through labyrinths of glistening stalactites and stalagmites, illuminated in garish colors by floodlamps.

Escaping the crowds, however, is not difficult. If you venture to the far south end of the bay, to Cat Ba, the traffic jams decrease––and the scenery becomes more dramatic anyway. But where our small group went, we did not come across a single foreigner. The place I'm talking about is Baitulong Bay, located off Campha, toward the Chinese border. The only way to get around here is to hire your own boat and crew, and have some kayaks aboard. Permission can be a problem. I teamed up with some other travelers to rent a refurbished fishing boat, with bunk–beds on board and all food supplies for the journey––as well as a cook who was terrific at buying fresh seafood from passing fisherfolk and preparing it for dinner. We had so much fresh seafood we began to get quite blasé about lobster and prawns.

Depending on the time of day, the play of light, and what you smoke or drink, you start seeing shapes in the karst limestone rocks. Rocks that resemble the head of Golem––or a profile of Captain Spock. One karst islet resembles the head of a monster, others are shaped like a rhino or praying Buddha. Karst is very sharp––I put my bicycle gloves on for climbing. The piece of karst I scramble up to definitely has overtones of an airplane cockpit, because you can sit inside the karst formation at the top. I feel like King of the Karstle.

karst paddies

Lost in a Lunar Landscape
Scattered through the north of Vietnam are pockets of karst on land. The most spectacular scenery is in the far northeast, accessed via the regional capital of Hagiang, some 300 km north of Hanoi. Hagiang is the gateway to the incredible Dongvan Plateau, an area studded with weird karst limestone formations. If you manage to give the police the slip in Hagiang, a day's drive takes you to the town of Dongvan. This has a lively Sunday market that attracts minority groups from the area, including Green Hmong. The best is yet to come: along the 22–km stretch between Dongvan to Meovac, the road winds along a cliff–face overlooking a mighty gorge. The views are divine. This has to qualify as the finest road trip in the whole of Vietnam. Fellow travellers John and Gabi––both keen photographers from the Netherlands––ranked the landscape as world–class, comparable to any scenic wonder of the planet.

To savour this karst landscape, the slower pace of mountain biking would be the best way to go: pack the bikes in the back of a van and stop and drop where desired. Even though we had proper permits, we were hounded by authorities. Several small hotels refused to let us lodge there, probably afraid of local police.

Just as strange as the karst landscapes are the dozens of ethnic groups that inhabit them and farm these stubborn slopes. The colonial French called them 'montagnards' or 'mountain people'. Exiting the Dongvan Plateau en route to Bac Ha, we headed for a small Saturday market at Cancao. We found lively sections selling livestock––water buffalo and pot–bellied pigs––and a curious trade in medicinal herbs gathered from the region, including wild mushrooms and ginseng. Then there is the textile section. The biggest ethnic group at Cancao is the Flower Hmong. Flower Hmong women stand out because of their flashy hemp–cloth costumes, woven with intricate floral designs. Hmong men gather to admire the handiwork––and to size up prospective spouses from their skill in embroidery. That's if they aren't distracted by great piles of raw tobacco, smoked by the bamboo bong–load.

Embarrassingly, we became something of a spectacle ourselves at Cancao market. Our van got stuck in muddy ruts generated by recent rains, and we had to push, mostly relying on the muscle–power of a dozen Hmong men to get us out of there. By the time the wheels had spun out of the ruts, we were spattered in mud from head to toe, which the Hmong hilltribers found hilarious. They cracked up as they waved us farewell.

Michael Buckley is the author of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos (Avalon Travel Publishing, USA, 2006), a comprehensive guidebook to Indochina. He also writes about other regions and maintains a Tibet website at www.himmies.com.

Related article: Searching for Rare Primates in the Valley of the Langurs

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