For our time in the north of the country, we used Hanoi as our base. We stayed at a hotel that catered to westerners; a few of the staff spoke at least some English – basic niceties and such. While in Hanoi, one of the days, our translator took us on a walking tour of some of the streets and street markets; this was a lot of dodging in and out of motorbike traffic and occasionally venturing into and through buildings – which would lead to street on the opposite side. We also made a day trip to Ninh Bình had took a rowboat tour of the Ngô Đồng River with its Tam Cốc caves. This outing was interesting – we saw rice farmers getting bits of the shoreline ready for planting. There were also fish and crayfish traps here and there along the way. I could have done without the ever-present hawking of knickknacks from the woman rowing the boat, as well as from other rowers who had boats with no passengers and just things to sell. Our rower, also, actually asked for a larger monetary tip than what I gave her. But, people are trying to scrape together a dollar (or đồng) to make a living.
For our last two days in the north, we headed to the coast – Ha Long Bay (sometimes spelled without the space, Halong Bay) – located east of Hanoi, and in or next to the Gulf of Tonkin.
Ha Long Bay is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The bay, which is 1,500, or so, square kilometers (600 square miles) sports some 2,000 islets. The islets are limestone karst structures – reaching heights of 50 to 100 meters (165 to 330 feet).
The company we went through for most of our travel, lodging, drivers and translators, also set us up with Indochina Junk. Indochina Junk bills itself as “Halong’s Finest Luxury Cruise”. And, the cruise was just that – a luxury.
The opulent comforts of our boat, the Red Dragon I, included many-course meals – each course a different theme complete with its own carved fruit center piece (the main course of dinner featured a watermelon carved to resemble our boat). The waiters also insisted on setting the napkin on your lap, pouring your drink and seemed eager to do everything but shovel food into maw and work your jaw to mash said food.
After sunset, and after our dinner, I gave squid fishing a trying – turn a light on over the water, and just drop a piece of fixed-length line with a lure attached and tied to a bamboo pole into the water. Our guide immediately hooked a squid about 10 inches long. It took me a while, but, eventually, I caught one.
The next day, we visited the floating fishing village of Vong Vieng. It was explained to us that in 1994, when Ha Long Bay was recognized by UNESCO, fishing peasants were still living in the caves in the limestone karsts. For one reason or another, the caves needed to be vacated, and the Vietnam government setup the float villages.
The main vessel anchored in deeper water and we boarded the tender and headed into the village. The water was clear and clean – our guide explained that the tour company had essentially put a bounty on trash in the waters in and around the village. Cleaner water equals a better experience for the tourist. As tourists were rowed around the fishing village, the rowers would occasionally dip a net into the water to catch floating candy wrappers or a piece of styrofoam.
The villagers have few more amenities now than when they lived in the caves. They have electricity from generators which allows for television and electric lighting. With their life on the water, it also allows for them to better farm some of their fish.
During the entire time in the fishing village, I could not help but think of how imbalanced the situation seemed. Poor fishing peasants who may or not have up to a primary school education (we were told that the government had recently began bring in a grade school teacher to each of the four floating fishing villages in Ha Long Bay) who get to row around and play momentary-hosts to tourists who likely paid many-times the amount a fisherman makes in a month for the short two day, one night cruise. It felt showy and ostentatious.
Do not get me wrong, I enjoyed the time on Ha Long Bay – it was good food, good company with the other guests, and great scenery.