Risking It All On Monkey Island

We slip through quiet waters under jagged, prehistoric towers of rock. We’re in northern Vietnam’s Halong Bay, an endless maze of razor sharp limestone peaks. These ancient karst mountains protrude from the dark and oily waters for miles in every direction. On a bright, sunny afternoon, the bay is a magical place, but under dark skies it's downright menacing. Without the omnipotent guidance of our Captain Vin, who has fished these waters his entire life, we’d be lost.


The wind picks up as thunderheads close in behind our rickety Chinese style junk. This is a broad wooden cow of a vessel whose crew of three have effortlessly shepherded us through the bay. We’re on the last leg of our voyage, risking a final stop before turning towards the mainland. Ahead of us looms that very destination, an ominous tangle of rock and dense tropical foliage. This is Monkey Island, an imposing isle jutting from the still waters of Halong Bay. We’d caught wind of it from an acquaintance in Hanoi, who’d recommended a fantastic view of the bay from its peak. That recommendation had been subtly paired with a cryptic warning about Monkey Island’s namesake inhabitants. We would not be disappointed in either regard.

I can hear our dual-seat kayak bump the ship's hull with every surge of the rising whitecaps. We move our gear to the staging area on deck, preparing to disembark.  We’ve launched a dozen times on this trip, but never like this. I lean over the gunwale to find the kayak’s bright orange shell glowing in the boiling sea. Lu, our fearless guide is balancing precariously on the kayak in a head-to-toe knockoff designer outfit. Lu desperately grips our ship's slick metal ladder. His eyes lock onto mine from below.
Now or never they say, its time to go.

With one last look across the deck I swing my leg over and lower myself past Lu and into the smaller boat. A paddle quickly follows, then my gear bag and Shoshana with a second paddle. I don’t have to look back when I feel a weight lift from the kayak. Lu is off, we’re untethered and adrift.

We bob for a moment in the bay, feeling insignificant in our narrow orange shell. I hear splashing off to our right and see Lu rounding the bow of our ship, paddling aggressively for the shore. Our momentary bewilderment is broken and we plunge our paddles into the dark waves. Monkey Island looms a half kilometer ahead, seemingly warding us off, but the wind at our back ignores the peril so we make quick work of the distance.

The first drops of rain fall as we ride the back of a rolling wave onto the beach. Lu catches the same wave in a dozen yards down. We land and spring into motion, pulling our kayaks higher as the ocean threatens to reclaim them. We survey our surroundings under the light rain. The white beach stretches in either direction, ringing two sharp peaks that rise from either end of the island, blanketed in tropical vegetation. Lu casually pops open a comically flimsy, pink floral umbrella and motions for us to follow him towards a ramshackle bungalow at the edge of the beach and out of the wind.

The first thing I notice is a small group of wet and ragged tourists huddled under the bungalow’s canopy. The second thing I notice is the large gang of wild monkeys who’ve encircled the bungalow. I watch one tourist throw a banana out to the beach in a half-hearted effort to distract the creatures. The gambit predictably fails, and the ring grows tighter.

The monkeys catch sight of us before the tourists and slink away as we come in fast and loud, ducking under the thatch roof. The tourists, who thank us in a heavily French accented English, explain that their own tour guides had left them on the island this afternoon with a bunch of bananas and some drinking water. It seems a cruel joke. They are clearly rattled, and luckily for them, Lu’s been on this island a hundred times and provides some much needed advice. "No quick movements…" he explains, “Keep your hands close…” he pulls his hands in toward his hips, “and don’t turn your back…” Lu looks over their shoulder and his eyes widen. The tourists jerk around defensively, expecting to duck from away from a lunging monkey. Instead, Lu’s eyes twinkle as he laughs to himself. He grabs the rest of their bananas and chucks them onto the sand. A seething mass of fur and teeth spring from the jungle’s edge and steal the bananas back into the shadows. I like Lu.

We leave the French tourists to the mercy of the island and make our way towards the larger peak at the northern tip of the island. We duck from the now lashing rain, into the jungle. Beyond the trees, the howling wind quiets immediately to a dull hiss. Lu points us to a rugged path, marked by a crude white arrow spray painted on a low boulder.

We push towards the interior, ensconced in thick green vegetation. The sandy beach gives way to sharp pebbles, then solid limestone. The surface of the rock has been eaten away by millions of years of rain, forming a razor sharp, Swiss cheese-like texture. Lu guides us forward, and the path rises quickly above the trees. The going is slow as we re-enter the howling winds above the tree line. The three of us scramble up to a ridge line affording our first fully panoramic view of the voyage. We look past Monkey Island’s prehistoric coastline to the hulking shadows of Halong Bay beyond. This land is truly wild.

We push across the narrow ridge, one foot on either side of the island. The island’s tallest peak looms ahead of us and the situation comes into critical focus. The wind wails, the cold rain beats down and we’re losing light. Unsure if I’ll even be able to photograph at all, we elect to push forward.

"You’ll only find the best photographs past the point of no return.” — @TravelingPhotographer

In these conditions even solid rock must be viewed with skepticism, so we move at a glacial pace. The promise of a break in weather as we reach the summit is simply too tempting. I can see that Lu is getting nervous, he is responsible for our well-being and know’s I’m willing to push it. We’re completely clear of tree’s now, with only rock beneath our feet. The beach below is a distant memory.

We happen upon a shallow cave, unexpectedly dry despite the conditions. We shelter for a time and prepare to make for the summit. I mount my Nikon and turn to Shoshana, who is clearly unwilling to continue forward. We promise to return quickly and I leave the rest of the gear in her care.

We are truly exposed now, the wind whipping in every direction, threatening to wipe us clean off the peak. We haven’t seen any monkeys since we left the jungle, but Lu had offered ancient umbrella to Shoshana at the cave in case any had followed our trail. Unprotected, we clamber up the last of wet stone, each of us careful to keep a least three limbs anchored at all times. The pinnacle becomes clear with a final push, we have reached the summit.

It is miserable. I can see Lu shouting to me from a few feet away but I cannot hear his voice. The wind screams and buffets me so I am forced to hold on for dear life. I shake my head at Lu after surveying the situation. Photographing is out of the question, its simply too risky and I can’t afford to lose the gear. Lu cackles wildly through the lashing rain, he’s loving every second of this.

We duck back down below the peak and cross back towards Shoshana’s cave. As if on cue, the wind suddenly stills. I stand up straight and look back at Lu. He shrugs. There’s no time like the present. I look around and spot a rock outcropping that might serve as a good viewpoint. I scramble out to it with Lu hot on my heels and setup my tripod. The rock is slick with rain but razor sharp, so every time I grab for stability I shred my fingers. I step onto the outcropping and line up my shot. I adjust my position to line up the shot and wipe down my lens. I snap a shot.

With a grinding clap, the entire rock I’m standing on shudders, then slips. It slides forward as Lu grips my jacket hood. I stumble backwards, grabbing my tripod and stepping off the sheet of rock as it plummets down into the jungle below. My stomach is caught in my throat. I look back desperately at Lu, in his knockoff Diesel jeans and Burberry loafers. He’s still smiling.

Without a word spoken, we make our way back down the sheer cliff face towards Shoshana’s cave. We find her there safe and free of unwanted interlopers. We beat a hasty retreat through the jungle and make for the beach. Night is fast approaching as we prep the kayaks for launch. The waves have grown by orders of magnitude since we arrived, making launch all the trickier. Lu takes one last, unconcerned moment to skip a rock into the waves. Then we push.

A large waves crashes onto the beach and buoys our kayak, pulling us off the sand and back into the ocean. We are immediately pushed back toward land by the next wave, and are forced to paddle hard into the wind. We clear the wave and glide over the roiling bay towards our ship. I spot Lu out of the corner of my eye, and turn back to the island. Shrouded in the mist of an approaching tempest, Monkey Island looks almost peaceful.

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