The islands emerge from the muffling mists like tombstones, stark vertical forms thrusting 10 stories or more above the water and flat in the thin light. Their sheer sides and sharp peaks defy any comforting notion of human habitation. This is a ghostly though gorgeous seascape, an environmental phenomenon that forces awe and pleasure — as well as needed serenity.
We are cruising in Halong Bay, a protected region along the coast of northern Vietnam, one of 183 natural sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. A week or so earlier, my wife and I had arrived in Hanoi to visit our 25-year-old son, Joe, who is teaching English there, and this excursion to one of Vietnam’s premier attractions was well timed. After seven months in Vietnam, Joe has embraced Hanoi in all its urban chaos. But the central city can be a shock to Western sensibilities.