Ha Long Bay is part of the Gulf of Tonkin, a couple of hours’ drive from Hanoi. It’s an amazing place, a shallow bay where something like three thousand islands tower out of the water. The vast majority present vertical cliff faces, so they’re not the sort of places you’d call home. Unless you’re one of the many raptors we saw floating on the air currents. The islands are limestone, formed when the land was flooded by rising seas some eight thousand years ago. The softer limestone eroded away leaving the harder islands (called karsts). When the sea level receded, the bay took on its present appearance. Read more here.
Back in the olden days Ha Long Bay was a haven for fishermen and pirates but these days it’s a world heritage site, visited by millions since the early 2000s. The surge as a tourist destination might have happened earlier had not the Vietnamese Government made an error of judgement. The James Bond movie, The Man with the Golden Gun, was supposed to be filmed in Ha Long Bay but the government suddenly withdrew permission, no doubt because of decadent western morals etc. That was in 1974. Undaunted, the film makers moved the location to Thailand’s Phang Nga Bay, near Phuket. Of course, the tourists flocked to Thailand instead of Vietnam.
As our bus approached our destination, I noticed a range of mountains in the distance. They were the islands, looking weird and mystical in the haze.
We arrived at the docks in Ha Long City around noon and boarded our vessel, MV Auco, where we were welcomed by the staff. The cabins were simple and comfortable each with its own en suite and a little balcony wide enough to hold a chair so you could sit and watch the scenery down here if you wanted. However, there was plenty of seating on the top sun deck or a deck behind the vessel’s restaurant. After we’d tossed our overnight bags into the room, we were summoned to lunch in the restaurant. Both sides of the room were glass so we could watch the view slide past as we ate.
The food was magnificent, all served Masterchef style. Even so, I couldn’t help but pop outside to take photos. That was me getting over-excited. The scenery was amazing for the whole trip.
Auco was certainly not the only ship in the bay. There were hundreds, ranging from huge cargo vessels to large floating hotels and cruisers like Auco, to quaint day-trip boats right down to the local people’s fishing boats, all taking advantage of cloudless skies and calm seas.
This is the bit where I wax lyrical. You know how they say a picture is worth a thousand words? Sometimes that’s not true. This was one of those times, even if you took a video. A photo doesn’t capture the mind games, the changes of perspective. You look between an apparent row of islands and see a boat, then it’s gone. A little further on you see it again, appearing around what you think is another island. Or it might be another island. Or a different boat. It’s like being in the middle of one of those “where’s the pea” sleight of hand games. It’s an ideal setting for pirates preying on the trading ships coming to Ha Long port. They could hide anywhere in this maze and appear and disappear at will.
We were given opportunities for several off-ship excursions. Out at the edge of the islands the crew launched kayaks for those feeling energetic and a tender for the rest of us to visit a little beach. Even out here garbage had made its way to the shore – but it was nice to see visitors and crew collecting the rubbish to take away. Those feeling particularly fit could also enjoy a swim.
There’s a little temple on another of the rare beaches. We were taken for a visit but I didn’t get any photos inside. Our guide told us it was dedicated to the three mothers, a faith that pre-dates Buddhism, Confucianism and the like. The three mothers are earth, sea, and sky, all important elements to the superstitious fisher folk who live here. Although these days being homosexual shouldn’t be a stigma any longer, long ago a man displaying feminine characteristics would become a servant of the mothers, attending to the altar and performing rituals.
It’s said women and children are never taken on boats beyond the islands because the sea gods like women and children and it’s more likely the boat will sink. If boats do sink and the men are drowning, they won’t be rescued. It’s seen as the sea gods taking a sacrifice. Nobody interferes with the deities.
That evening after dinner, our host, Kevin, told us why the ship is called “Auco” and the legend of how the bay was created. Auco was a fairy with healing skills who hailed from the mountains. Wanting to share her skills with those who needed them, she left the mountains and went down to the plains. But there is danger everywhere for a single woman and she was set upon by thugs. Seeing this the great sea dragon rose from the waters and rescued her. Of course, they fell in love and were married. Auco bore one hundred eggs which became the forefathers of the Vietnamese people. As the legend unfolded on the screen, members of the hard-working staff performed a traditional dance illustrating the words.
It’s a lovely story and it’s somehow very fitting in this setting of mountains surrounded by sea.
One of the chefs gave us a cooking lesson on the back deck behind the restaurant. He showed us how to make fried Vietnamese spring rolls, except this time, he used premade wrappers. Then he invited members of the audience to give it a try. As the evening progressed degrees of difficulty were added to the task eg rolling the spring roll with one hand, rolling the spring roll with your back turned. At the end the remaining two contestants had to roll their opponent’s spring roll with their back turned. The winner of the best spring roll won a chef’s apron and hat to take home. It was lots of fun, enjoyed by the spectators.
We were given a chance to see the bridge and engines on the ship, a treat for those mechanically minded.
You’ll have noticed already that a number of the excursions we did were visits to ordinary Vietnamese people, living life as they’ve always done, such as the farmer’s house in Hoi An and the basket boats in the fishing village. It gives these people another way of earning some of the tourist dollars which are so often limited to the hotels and resorts. The Auco itself worked in a similar way. Many of the staff were recruited from villages and given the opportunity to learn English, acquire new skills, and work their way up. One young barman came from a rural village where he was betrothed at a young age to a local girl. But after discovering a wider world he decided to stay on the ship and make his fortune.
Late on our second day we were taken by tender to a village on Cat Ba Island, the largest of the group and the closest to Hanoi. Although part of the island is filled with thriving resorts, we were taken to Viet Hai village nestled in a fertile valley near the national park. Tourist dollars had created an all-weather concrete road between the jetty where our tenders tied up and the village itself. The more enterprising of our group elected to ride bikes, while the rest of us were transported in vehicles. It was a challenging ride for the cyclists with plenty of hills and valleys. The island itself is made of the same limestone as the karsts in the sea, offering an ideal location for goats.
Viet Hai is a fairly unspoiled village, home to around two hundred-and-eighty people living life the old way, though supported by tourists like us and, we were told, the company that runs the Auco and other ships. Like all farmers, they had acres of crops, grown organically. I gathered they supplied the tourist boats with produce. We saw horses and buffalo, and, of course, hens and geese. And dogs. Our guide agreed the dogs were there for protection but that not all the puppies would get to grow up. These people eat everything.
After we’d had a wander around, we gathered in the meeting hall for a short lecture. We’d heard the Vietnamese make ‘wine’ out of just about everything. This version was snake wine. Snakes are pickled in something a bit like grappa. You scoop some out in a cup and drink. But men only. (I suspect the reason is phallic.)
We’d heard on the boat about the conservation initiative to save the langur that’s endemic to Cat Ba Island. The monkey is wonderfully adapted to live on the razor-sharp limestone cliffs and is able to drink salt water. But until about twenty years ago their numbers had dropped from a sustainable several thousand to about fifty. The reasons are the usual culprits: the body parts are used for Asian medicine, they’re hunted as ‘sport’ by some tourists, and they were easy meat for the locals. The village spokesperson also told us about a particularly horrible practice where people ate the brains of still-living monkeys because that would make them smarter. Some of you might recall a similar scene in the Indiana Jones movie, The Temple of Doom. Traditional medicine is full of these idiotic beliefs. Obvious examples are that rhino horn and tiger penis potions will increase a man’s virility. It’s sickening.
The remaining langurs live their lives in the island’s national park, where rangers protect them from poachers and illegal hunting. It seems the conservation efforts are beginning to work as the langur population has increased to about seventy-five. Of course, the main way to protect the animals is to make them worth more alive than dead. It takes education and income exceeding the worth of a langur for medical potions. That’s where tourism comes in. This interesting article will tell you a little more about the langurs.
The sun was beginning to set when we climbed back into the tenders and returned to the Auco for our wonderful dinner. I don’t know about you but I prefer sav blanc to snake wine. And I got a chance to take some nice sunset shots.
The following morning, still in the spirit of community-based tourism we were invited to visit one of the floating fishing villages to see how the fisher folk lived. The platforms are the same as any village, with shops, accommodation, and schools – only they’re anchored next to one or more of the islands. Read more about them here. This article indicates the people don’t live on the floating villages anymore and receive most of their income from tourism. Good luck to them.
But while the people may not live here anymore, there’s plenty of locals out there fishing.
And another couple of locals fishing. One thing I didn’t see – much bird life apart from the raptors. They looked a lot like our black kites at home and a quick interview with Prof Google confirms my judgement. They live on the karsts. I saw one landing at a nest.
It was a fabulous couple of days. My only regret is that we didn’t get to see any of the caves. There are plenty out there, and since the rocks are limestone, there will be plenty of stalagmites.
Oh well. Maybe another time.