About 275 kilometres north of the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, towards the border with China lies Halong Bay, a tourist attraction with a difference.
A throng of limestone rock islands jutting out of the South China Sea, about two kilometres away from the mainland hide marvels listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) as the seventh wonder of the world.
The rock islands in Halong Bay look drab from afar, but tucked under their moldy roofs are natural caves replete with features hardly seen elsewhere on earth.
The grottos accidentally discovered by fishermen in 1993 when a fire they lit to roast fish weakened the roof, causing it to collapse and reveal a treasure trove of beautiful features are magnets for tourists from all over the world, seven million of whom visit every year according to available statistics.
Kenya currently records less than 1.5 million tourist arrivals annually. Adventure in Halong Bay raking in memory enough to last a life time starts at a tourism city of hotels, bars, restaurants, casinos, offices and other amenities that have sprung ashore because of the vibrancy of the industry.
Engine powered boats complete with five star hotel catering facilities, washrooms and sea view windows take off at intervals from the tourist city for the islands, chugging slowly in the calm waters, a luxury cruise that lasts several minutes to allow time for three course meals complete with drinks from an inbuilt bar.
A tour guide with a good knowledge of English and other international languages is available, explaining the features at sea before the rocks. Among the scenic topographies are dwarf rocky outcrops standing side by side with bellies and heads that give them the shape of fighting cocks. Tourists scramble for photographs as the 'fighting cocks' draw close.
The walk through the caves dimly lit to allow visibility requires stamina to keep climbing and descending to reach the various attractions etched on the rocks. The guide armed with a powerful torch picks out wonders that include formations shaped like the fauna and flora of the earth, human beings included.
"How many of you can see an elephant?" he asks abruptly, directing his torch light to what looks like a real curving of the pachyderm, complete with a trunk, large ears and tusks. After a brief walk, he directs his torch elsewhere with the words: "What do you see now?"
We peer at what looks like kittens playing around a mother cat. When he flashes his torch again, it is on a pattern that resembles a herd of cattle grazing or a forest thick with trees or women, their bulging busts and bums well molded. The wonder images are endless.
We saw stalagmites and stalactites, conical pillars that take hundreds of years to grow upwards or downwards from water seeping through limestone rocks, things most people only read in geography books. An inch of stalagmite or stalactite can take 100 years or more to form.
The caves and their entire mystique reminded me of potential tourist resorts that have been left to lay fallow back home and that if exploited could beef up our tourist earnings currently pegged on beaches and wild animals that have been on the ebb lately due to poaching.
Kenya too has caves that can be exploited to prop the tourism industry at times like these when security challenges are threatening to shut down the Coast as a tourist destination and the popular big five are getting scarce in the wake of runaway poaching.
The caves on the slopes of Mt Elgon, for instance are reputedly the only ones in the world where elephants go underground to scrape the cave walls for salts contained in the rocks.
The caves on Mt Kenya, the Aberdares and Ngong Forest were hideouts for freedom fighters and could attract tourists if properly exploited. Luxury boats fitted with hotel facilities could be a haven for tourists wishing to explore Lake Victoria, the world's second largest fresh water lake and the source of the longest river on earth, the Nile. Or Lake Turkana, the world's largest desert lake.
Rusinga Island that gave Africa Tom Mboya, one of the continent's brightest sons buried on the island could interest local and international tourists.
Ndere Island national park lies hardly 20 kilometres away from Kisumu City within eye shot of the wonder rocks of Kit Mikayi, placed by mother nature on top of each other.
What the Vietnamese have done to pull in tourists from all over the world can be replicated here to bring to life many neglected sites.
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