Cruising in Halong Bay

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Sunset over Halong Bay – a typical tourist image

One is bound to feel a bit odd arriving anywhere at the ungodly hour of 5am but when I landed at Hanoi airport although I found myself in a country where I knew no one and didn’t speak the language, any anxiety I felt was dissipated by excitement that the adventure was about to begin. I was off to explore the rivers of Northern Vietnam on a Pandaw cruise which would venture along rivers where no other tourist craft ventured.

My thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of Mr Duoc, the Pandaw representative, who was to take me to the hotel in Hanoi where we were to assemble before being taken to the boat. I was the only person he was picking up and once en route we chatted. On learning that I loved flowers he suggested that we could detour and visit the Hanoi Flower Market which would be busy trading at this hour. This unexpected pleasure was, I discovered just an example of the way in which Pandaw staff go the extra mile in catering for their client’s wellbeing.

At the Quang Ba Flower Market I found myself surrounded by hundreds of roses, gladioli, dahlias and other exotic blooms, breathing in their sweet scent and admiring their rainbow colours as well as taking in with interest the lively sellers. As we left the market, day was breaking and I noticed little stoves being lit at impromptu stalls along the roadside to serve breakfast to the people hurrying to work. This was daily life, with not a tourist in sight and a very special introduction to Vietnam.

My voyage begins

The coach drive from Hanoi to Halong Bay where we were to board our boat, took several hours and by then the early start was beginning to tell on me but I revived on seeing our smart little ship, R.V. Ankor Pandaw. The Pandaw Cruise Company was established by a Scotsman Paul Strachan, who based the design of his vessels on those of the nineteenth century Burmese Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, some of which were made on the Clyde and shipped in parts to be reassembled in Rangoon. Most were scuppered to prevent their falling into the hands of the Japanese in 1942 but, fifty years later, Paul found one abandoned and rotting in Mandalay. He restored it, using the design for the rest of his fleet.

“Our” pandaw had all the teak and brass finish of the originals, with bar, dining room and a spacious upper deck on which to relax and good-sized cabins fitted with comfortable beds and good showers. With only twenty passengers and an almost equal number of crew we knew we could count on good service.

Locals were happy to show us their homes

After the usual safety briefing we were soon sipping cocktails as we sailed away from the touristy part of Halong Bay.  I already knew that this area is a World Heritage site composed of thousands of isles and islets and steep limestone sea-stacks known as karsts. I had also read the legend that a mountain dragon charged towards the sea, its tail gouging out crevasses which filled as it reached the sea leaving only the peaks visible. I was therefore expecting something spectacular – but nothing had prepared me for the amazing experience of sailing almost silently between the tall wooded karsts as the sun set.

The next morning we sailed to Cat Ba island and then took the new road to the village of Viet Hai which is on the edge of the Cat Ba National Park. This is a UNESCO Man & Biosphere Reserve Area with huge biodiversity, containing hundreds of species of flora and fauna including the endemic, threatened and rare Kapa langur monkey with a yellow head and long tail, of which only some sixty are left as they don’t breed well and the babies often fall from the steep cliffs into the water and drown.

and it began to look as if I was getting adopted

We learned that a number of the ‘boat people’ of the 1970s and 80s who couldn’t make it out of the country were resettled as refugees in this village. At first they were forbidden to leave by the local authorities but very few did as they had nowhere to go. Now the village is being developed for ecological tourism. There are even opportunities for home-stays with local families.

There were no other tourists about  as we strolled down the main (and only) street, passing the cemetery, the new clinic, the primary school, the community house and the allotment gardens, the size of the vegetable plot apparently being dependent on size of family. We saw hedges of red hibiscus and lots of fruit trees and all around the village were paddy fields and grazing cows. Although it is such a wet environment, the water is not healthy as the rice paddies are now polluted with chemical fertiliser but this doesn’t affect the rice itself.

Everywhere we went we met charming, friendly people who were happy to show us their homes, in one case even offering us snake wine from a glass jar in which the corpse of a cobra, complete with venom, lay coiled at the bottom. This is apparently a tipple for men ‘to make them strong’ (in bed). There were no takers in our group.

the fish-rearing enclosures

Their gardens were full of fruit trees – figs, lychees, pomellos – with chickens, ducks and pigs scratching around. The people seemed quite self-sufficient but it was obvious there was very little paid employment in the village and yet everything they could not produce – plus schooling and medical attention – cost money, a fact which surprised me in a communist country. In fact we saw several posters encouraging people to buy health insurance. We learned that many families rely on money sent by younger family members from abroad. Family is enormously important and filial duty taken very seriously in Vietnam, as is saving face and maintaining appearances – which is why even in some old distressed looking houses a large television was visible inside and a motor bike outside.

Back on board, we chatted about this, our first glimpse of Vietnamese life, over lunch (the food throughout the cruise was first class) before setting off on another excursion which proved even more of an eye-opener. This time we were to visit a fisherman’s floating home. In the past many adopted this harsh way of life but, nowadays, far fewer families live permanently on the water. Even being literally in the midst of one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, as we were to discover, can hardly compensate for the discomfort it entails.

We were welcomed onto the large floating platform comprised of compartments in which fish are farmed. These fishermen not only catch fish to sell in the markets but also raise them, buying in (or catching) small fish and feeding them until they are bigger and more valuable in order to boost the family’s income.

river traffic!

Here we met the two related families and their children who live in two small shacks on the floating platform together with an assortment of dogs and puppies. Incidentally we could tell that these pups were not being raised to eat. The Vietnamese baulk at the concept of ‘pets’ (although we saw dogs on leads which clearly were) and eating dogs is commonplace. They do however do question our logic, asking why there is a difference between killing eating an old dog and killing and eating an old chicken.

Here we were proudly shown the latest addition to the family – a lovely little child of two or three. The idea of a toddler running around in an environment so fraught with danger was hard for us to imagine but, of course,  to the family it was completely normal, generations had been brought in this way. Most of the children of these communities only attend primary school as selling fish – which they are destined to do – only requires basic literacy and numeracy.

They did however, seem happy and welcomed us to look into their two simple shack-like huts which offer rudimentary shelter from the elements but lack all the comforts and amenities we take for granted.  It seemed intrusive to enter and look inside them. I actually found it a very humbling experience.

the caves

This was brought even more sharply into relief by the next excursion – an afternoon cruise to one of the Three Peach Islands for cocktails. It was one of the few islets to have a beach, most rise sheer from the water and on landing we found a rather surreal arrangement of blue plastic chairs (very popular in Vietnam we were to find) and a table laid out with canapés and cocktails.

Of course there is a legend attached to the islands. A fairy stole three magic peaches from heaven to ensure her poor fisherman lover, a mortal, would have eternal life and they could live together. The King of Heaven however found out, brought the fairy back and turned the three peaches into these islands …

We had one further exciting adventure before we left this amazing area, and it was one of the most memorable – a visit to the Dark and Bright Caves. It was a hazy morning with the karsts rising starkly through the mist, offering perhaps the most atmospheric view of Halong Bay.

and then off on the next part of the journey

We donned lifejackets. Some brave souls took kayaks while the rest (including me) climbed into smaller boats. Ours was rowed, standing up, by a young woman accompanied by her 3-4yr old child who sang to us throughout. We soon reached the mouth of the first cave which was in fact a low tunnel. It was not only pitch black inside but also home to bats and very eerie. Luckily the girl rowing had a lamp as we had to duck to avoid the huge stalagmites hanging from the roof. After a while we saw the light at the end of the tunnel and emerged into a magical hidden lake.

This was our last adventure in Halong Bay. It was time to say goodbye to this glorious, unforgettable area and begin to explore the rivers of North Vietnam.

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