The trip out of Hanoi was so spectacular as to seem cliche. Between towns of gaudy neoclassical tube-houses, we passed scenes of rural Vietnamese life so postcard-perfect they seemed as if they had been staged. Black and white ducks crowded in a bamboo cage, teetering off the edge of a motorcycle; women in conical hats working in flooded plains that glowed with electric-green rice buds; water-buffalo lazing in the shade, their fur caked with mud. But as attractive as these scenes were, they couldn't rival our destination: Halong Bay.
The guidebooks told us that March was the worst time to visit, but we discovered that Halong Bay in winter is chilly, foggy, and perfectly atmospheric. In the morning, veils of mist hung off the jagged-edges of karsts. In the afternoon, the sun drew the mist away, revealing bamboo groves clinging over shrines carved into the rock-face. As we kayaked among dragon-tooth peaks and squat wooden junks, we spied giant jellyfish floating in the teal waters below us, their pale pink tendrils trailing behind them.
Where tourists and visitors gathered, so too did floating market sampans. From boats of wooden and woven bamboo, women offered oranges, Ritz crackers, and boxes of cigarettes. Some had large plastic tubs; they offered crabs, cuttlefish, and fist-sized clams, their mother of pearl interiors gleaming.