Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

November 5, 2004 Ha Long Bay

One of my Vietnamese colleagues told me to visit Ha Long Bay while I was in Hanoi. It turned out to be easy. I asked at my hotel about trips, and they signed me up for an overnight excursion on the spot, door to door pickup and delivery, all my meals, room on the boat, and only $43. Can’t beat that!

It was a proper organized tourist venture. A dozen of us in a minibus, with a Vietnamese guide who chattered endlessly into his microphone in broken English, pointing out sights on the road, telling us to look at the “splendid” landscape, sketching out our itinerary. A three-hour drive to Ha Long, with a stop on the way “for breakfast” and to see traditional Vietnamese crafts being made. Then onto our boat at Ha Long harbor. Lunch on the boat. Stops at a famous cave, a beach. Dinner on the boat. I stopped paying attention at that point, so I don’t know what else he said.

The stop for breakfast and crafts was classic tourism. We stopped at a modest complex with a café selling coffee and sweet rolls and packaged cookies and cigarettes, and counters selling horribly overpriced crafts. On one side of the building twenty or so young Vietnamese women were embroidering the thread pictures that I was so taken with the first time I was in the country. I watched them for quite a while – I had always wondered how they managed to create such complex illustrations in thread. It actually seems pretty simple now that I’ve seen it. Their fabric is stretched on a tight frame, and they sew stitch over stitch in rapid succession, laying one color over another to get the gradual shading that I’d wondered how to do. Our guide told us that this workshop hired handicapped people, and indeed the pretty girl up front appeared to be missing a leg. No one else was handicapped, of course, but perhaps that was meant to justify the exorbitant prices? Every tour en route to Ha Long seemed to stop there, and the parking lot was a madhouse of buses crowding in and out, groups of Europeans and Australians and Americans and South Africans in search of the bathroom or trying to figure out which was there bus so they could get back on it to leave.

We didn’t see anything of Ha Long, but the port was equally chaotic. Bus after bus pulled in, groups of tourists dragging their luggage or hefting their backpacks as they scurried after their guides, making sure they got on the right boat. Dozens of carved wooden boats crowded into the docks; we climbed over two of them to get to ours.

As our boat nosed its way through the crowded water to get out of the port we started chatting with each other. An Australian couple had been traveling the world for a year, and were in the last few weeks of their trip, wondering what they would be doing when they got back home. A wholesome Canadian from Newfoundland had been teaching English in Korea for a year, and was now exploring the region a bit before returning to Toronto to look for a job. A young Dutch fellow worked for a travel agent, and had gotten a cheap deal on a three-week trip to Vietnam. A tall South African of Indian descent who worked as a mining engineer had just finished the exams for the MBA he’d been pursuing at night, and was taking a much-needed vacation. A newly-married French couple didn’t speak English too well, but even in French they seemed a bit shyer than the rest of us, keeping to themselves a lot. A Danish environmentalist and his Thai wife were even less friendly. He and I talked shop a bit, but mostly they just didn’t seem to want to talk to anyone but each other. A very interesting middle-aged English couple was peeved to be on our boat – it turned out they had paid for a private trip, with their own guide, and had been put on our group boat instead. Late in the day they transferred to a different boat, which was too bad, because they added a different tone to the mostly-youthful backpacking crew. By the afternoon we’d worked out that there were “the cool people” – the ones who liked to chat, the Australians, the Canadian, the Dutch fellow, and the South African – and the dull table – the French and the Danish man with his Thai wife. At meals we all wanted to sit at the talkative table, which didn’t quite work.

Ha Long Bay is unlike anyplace I’d been before. I’m afraid I didn’t pay attention to the geology lecture from our guide, so I can’t tell you how the islands in the Bay got there. But they were exceptional even without knowing their origin. The Bay is long and narrow bay, dotted with islands that look like chunks of cliff dropped into the ocean. They rise straight up from the water, no gentle coastline, no beaches, indeed no flat land at all. The few families who live on the Bay have floating houses, and get around in rowboats. The bit of beach where we stopped for a swim in the afternoon was the only spot of flat land we saw – and I’d guess it might well have been man-made. The Bay is a World Heritage site, but unfortunately that doesn’t stop the boats from emptying their trash buckets overboard. I don’t want to know where their sewage goes.

The Bay was teeming with tourist boats. They were quite lovely, all made of heavy dark wood, carved with what might have been traditional motifs. And they were quiet. I don’t know from boat engines, but these made gentle purring noises. Not one power boat, no jet skis, nothing to disturb the beautiful calm of that bay and the rugged boulders rising out of it.

In the afternoon – after a decidedly mediocre but probably very typical lunch cooked by the kitchen crew of our boat – we visited the cave where the tourists are taken. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of caves among the islands, but this one is managed by

the Parks Department for tour groups. As our pilot waited to maneuver into the small dock so we could scramble on shore, a woman rowed up in a small boat filled with snacks, water, sodas, and film – no doubt one of the Bay’s residents, making a living selling to the tourists. We climbed a lot of steps to the cave entrance, and poured into the warm darkness in a steady stream of visitors. After visiting Wind Cave in South Dakota, a National Park where only fifteen people may visit at a time and the rangers are concerned lest even a single human germ upset the cave’s delicate ecosystem, this place was like an amusement park grotto. Paved throughout, well lit, crowded, hot with the weather and the masses of people tromping up and down the paths. The best was coming out into the sunshine, halfway up the tall island, and seeing all of the boats in the cove before us, some with brilliant sails unfurled to catch the sunshine. We all made a beeline for the ladies selling ice creams at the exit, and gazed in admiration at the scene. The sails, it turns out, are purely decorative, to give the tourists a photo-op, but it was still stunning.

As dusk came on, our boat anchored in the cove beneath the cave, along with a dozen or so others, and we stayed the night. It was lovely and a bit eerie, the quiet boats moored a few hundred feet apart, their lights gleaming in the water as the stars came out and, later in the evening, the moon rose. I almost drifted to sleep on the roof of our boat, in the shadow of the dark islands silhouetted against the deep blue sky. Dawn found me back on the roof, as the light rose from deep blue to lightening gray, and one by one people emerged on the decks of their boats.

Our group split up in the morning. The Australians, the Canadian, the South African, and the Danish man and his Thai wife were on for three days, and they joined a different boat to visit Cat Ba Island. A pair of Dutch girls, a French Canadian threesome, and a middle-aged Vietnamese-Canadian back to visit his home country joined us as we headed back to Ha Long, having already made their trip to Cat Ba. The Vietnamese man was loquacious. He had left from the south as a teen-ager, made his way to Europe and eventually to Canada. He told me things about the country that I couldn’t have heard from anyone else – how repressive the government is, that he was being watched as a native who had returned to visit, how much my Vietnamese colleagues were probably being paid. The Dutch girls were graduate students, living in a small village for a few months to do thesis research on maternal and child health and relieved to get away for a weekend. The French couple didn’t even talk to the French Canadians, so clearly it wasn’t language troubles that led them to keep to themselves.

An hour out of Ha Long our boat anchored for us to have a last swim. No beach this time, though – we donned our suits and jumped straight off the upper deck into the water. Well, everyone else did – I was wearing my glasses, and timidly climbed down the ladder rather than risk losing them in the sea. I could have stayed there all day, swimming circles around the boat out in the middle of the bay, the nearest land a few hundred meters a way. All too soon, though, the summoned us back, so we could putt into Ha Long and get on the minibus back to Hanoi.

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Unless otherwise indicated all text and photos on this site ©Joy E. Hecht.