'Raining Ponchos in Halong Bay'
The Weekend Australian 20 March 2010

Afternoon showers fail to dampen the spirits sailing on a Vietnamese junk by Kerrin O'Sullivan

There is something about the ponchos. The six of us are caught in a tropical downpour on the Bai Chai Tourist Dock waiting to depart on a two-day cruise of Halong Bay, and we are disintegrating in unruly laughter.

We look ridiculous. The plastic ponchos we are wearing - those nondescript sleeveless raincoats that are hooded and elasticised around the face - are red, blue, yellow, green, pink and orange. We look like the Wiggles attempting a remake of Singing in the Rain. The previous afternoon in Hanoi, we were mystified by the arrival of a Vietnamese poncho-seller in the midst of a sudden downpour.

"How did you find us?" I asked.

"In Hanoi, it always rains at three o'clock," he confidently replied.

Sure enough, it was 3pm on the dot; we poncho-ed up.

Then again today, from out of the deluge, a poncho-seller emerges and once again, we happily exchange Vietnamese dong for Vietnamese weather-proofing. We are preparing to sail Halong Bay, a World Heritage site with more than 3,000 limestone islets, in a traditional wooden sailing junk.

"It is luxury, like a pagoda on the ocean," says our beaming guide, Phong.

There are only a dozen passengers, of which our family accounts for half. We sail away from the waterfront and 10 minutes later, perplexingly, we drop anchor. A lunchtime feast appears: barbequed pork, crab, prawns, fish. My son is thrilled with the spring rolls but less enthusiastic about the lotus soup.

The ticket collector who carried our bags aboard is now a waiter in starched waiter's garb. The sailcloth fills out, brilliant orange against the grey sky. We slip past a fishing village on stilts, and a woman washing her hair over the side of a boat. A child sits reading a book, a baby plays at her feet. I feel a tad voyeuristic.

"How do they stop the little ones from falling overboard?" my daughter asks. I have been wondering the same thing.

When the blood-orange sun sinks, shadowing the green water, we drop anchor for the night. A sampan pulls up next to us tightly packed with goodies for sale. There are Pringles crisps, toilet paper, Pepsi-Cola, bundled Asian greens, coconuts: you name it, they have it. Business is brisk over the railings; the crew is stocking up on Oreo cookies.

Pre-dinner cocktails include the regional Halida beer and a rice wine, although not the pickled snake variety that we came across in Hanoi: for the young ones, it's sugar-cane juice or the ubiquitous Fanta.

The sky darkens from mauve to purple and the light of a fisherman's lantern flickers with a dream-like quality. The waiter invites my son to night-fish off the back of the boat. Together they haul in nets sprinkled with squid and octopus; what they catch will be cooked tomorrow. Phong, meanwhile, drags a portable television onto the deck. "We are football crazy," he says earnestly.

When I retire to my cabin, my husband is filming the moon.

We wake to the sound of waves lapping at the hull, a whiff of brine in the air. At breakfast, Phong reports there was a penalty shoot-out and apologises for the cheering. More grottoes, waterfalls, saw-toothed crags. At every turn, a different vista emerges: a fisherman throwing a line, a sea eagle perched on an outcrop. The chatter of Francois monkeys in the treetops carries across the water, as does birdsong.

By late afternoon the Bai Chai esplanade comes into view. We dock and bid farewell. As we navigate the gangway, there is a rumble of thunder. A black cloud hovers overhead and adeptly dumps rain on us.

No problem. Coming towards me on the promenade is a poncho-seller.

© 2012 Kerrin O’Sullivan