January 2012

We are back in Hanoi, just briefly in order to catch a plane back to KL. This morning we caught a bus to ride across the island to the ferry on the north end of Cat Ba. The road was under construction, so it was touch and go for a while if we would even get through. But our driver had nerves of steel and powered through the gravel without slipping into the ravine that was mere inches away. When we got to the dock we discovered that our boat was much larger than the one we were on yesterday, and both smoother and quieter with a nice sitting area out of the wind, which was blustery and cold across the bay.

But we didn’t sit inside. The ferry cut across a stretch of Ha Long Bay we hadn’t seen before, and it was too lovely to leave just because of a contrary wind. So we sat huddled up on our deck chairs, bundled in all the warm clothes we could muster, and watched the glorious scenery go majestically by. Eventually we arrived in Ha Long City where we transferred to a vehicle for the next leg of the trip. There was the usual delay while they sorted out the hundreds of tourists onto their various busses and ferries. We were fortunate to get placed on a van that cut the travel time to Hanoi, and arrived just before the rush hour. A quick taxi ride with a very hostile driver brought us to the pleasant staff at the hotel we stayed at on our arrival in Vietnam, where we were treated like old friends. We had a nice meal at a little café overlooking the street, the kind of place that is not easy to find in this overwhelmingly utilitarian city. Then it was back to our hotel for an early evening before our 5 am wake up call.

During a chat with our tour group yesterday we discussed our impressions of the Vietnamese people. The reactions ranged from “hostile” and “aggressive” to “sullen” and “indifferent.” Nobody seemed overly impressed. But when I posted something similar a few days, a number of respondents disagreed. They are indeed a hard people, tough enough to have driven the Chinese out of their country and keep them out for a thousand years. Tough enough to have defeated both the French and the Americans within two decades in the last fifty years; no mean feat in any country’s history. That toughness and aggression is shown in their response to foreigners. During a motorcycle trip around Cat Ba on Sunday we stopped for a moment to get our bearings. A young girl passing by, no more than 6 or 7, contemptuously slapped my helmet visor in a random act of aggression that caught me completely by surprise. This is not the kind of response that we have encountered anywhere else in Asia. Someone is indoctrinating the young of this country in their xenophobia.

However we have also been met with consideration and courtesy on our trip to Ha Long Bay. We chatted with a young Vietnamese student on the van who was studying tourism. Everyone of her friends is studying tourism. Her English was excellent, and so was her attitude. This bodes well for a future of greater openness to outsiders. We also have to note that although the streets are narrow and the infrastructure is crumbling and decayed, the people here work hard at keeping their country clean; not something that you see in Malaysia, Cambodia or Sri Lanka. Construction is happening everywhere; streets are being improved, shoplots are being rebuilt.

These are an industrious and resilient people. Hardship has toughened them throughout their history, and their history has also taught them to be suspicious and resentful of foreigners. They have enough drive and resourcefulness to be an economic powerhouse in this part of the world; to rebuild their cities and develop their industries. They have a physically beautiful country, and it could well become a tourist mecca. They also have enough aggression and xenophobia to rule out any significant progress as a nation. The blocking of the social networking site, Facbook, is evidence of their paranoia. In short, they could go either way in the future, and Vietnam will be an interesting country to watch.

Ha Long Bay in North Vietnam is a World Heritage site and was recently selected as one of the seven new natural wonders of the world. There are nearly two thousand limestone islands in the 600 square miles of the bay. They are what are called karsts, tectonic uplifts of what was formerly sedimentary rock. From the look of the layers, some of that uplift was nearly vertical. Erosion by wind and water has then shaped these rocks into strange outcroppings; some looking like Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio, some looking like the ‘flowerpots’ of the Bruce Peninsula.

Today we took a cruise out into Ha Lan Bay, off the southern coast of Cat Ba island where we are staying, and around to the east and north of the island into Ha Long Bay itself. We shared the cruise with a dozen others, all young backpackers, from San Francisco, Vancouver, England, India and Germany. It was a wondrous journey, and pictures simply do not do the site justice. These scenic wonders spring from the water in dazzling variety; some looking like humpbacked dragons – ha long means descending dragon – some teetering precariously on thin stalks eroded to the point of collapse by the water. Our little boat wove its way through this water wonderland, every turn in the bay yielding a new vista. We were entranced.

After a couple of hours of this we dropped anchor in a secluded part of the bay and loaded into kayaks for a closer look. Erosion has carved caves and arches in the islands, making them ideal for exploration in kayaks. Pam and I were happy to be a craft we ourselves could manage, and spent a happy hour in our own little tour before returning to the boat for lunch. We were expecting noodle soup or some greasy fried rice. Instead we have steamed rice and vegetables, Vietnamese spring rolls and mackerel steaks. Another hour of cruising brought us to Bo Hon Island, site of the Sung Sot cave. We had heard nothing of this in any guide book and quite frankly we were not expecting to see much more than a few scruffy stalagmites and a tourist vendor. We were totally blown away by the most vast and massive cave we had ever seen. The cave was beautifully laid out with clear and clean flagstones quarried from the surrounding limestone, and with a minimum of artificial light to bring out the cave’s natural beauty. The view from the outer reach of the cave overlooking the harbor is the one that you see of Ha Long Bay on the Wikipedia site.

We had a brief spell of anxiety on the way home as the engine quite literally blew a gasket. It must be a fairly regular occurrence because the crew had a spare gasket on hand and managed the repair in forty-five minutes. Fortunately we were in a fairly open and protected part of the bay, and drifted peacefully along while the repairs took place. Half an hour later we were out into the open waters of the bay with their two metre swells. We stopped briefly on Monkey Island to feed the local residents who were happy to ‘steal’ our lunch leftovers and pose for pictures. Aside from them and a lone sea eagle, there was not much other wildlife to be seen.

It was a fantastic day of sights and experiences, and it was nice to have some fellow travelers to share the experience with and to talk about our various travels through South-East Asia. We finished our day with a decent meal at the Green Mango, recommended by our Aussie friend Jim, and not to be missed if you ever find yourself on Cat Ba Island. The weather may not have been the best at this time of year, but with no tourist crowds to contend with, we got to see some pretty amazing sights today. For my money the karsts looked even more mysterious and impressive arising from the mists as they came into view. We were glad we came.

If you are wondering why you haven’t seen us on Facebook lately, look again at the heading on this post. North Vietnam is not North Korea, but it does share a similar cult devotion to its dead leaders and a similar paranoia about opening up to the world. We did manage to squeak by and post just once on Facebook, but that must have been a fluke, because the page has been unavailable to us the rest of the time.

So if you found us here on our weblog we would like to wish you a very Happy New Year. May the coming year be filled with adventure and blessing. Happy 2012!

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