Beauteous Bay

Trip Start Jan 10, 2005
1
9
53
Trip End May 10, 2005


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Wednesday, January 26, 2005

It's truly amazing how organized the Vietanmese are in loading up tourists on to buses and sorting/resorting them into groups according to their itineraries. We just returned from a trip to Halong Bay, just east of Hanoi, and, over the two days, ended up with three different tour groups at various points. We left with one, spent the night on a boat in Halong Harbour with another and drove back to the city with a third. They were meticulous about remembering all the details, including where we were from, our hotel, etc. - even though many different guides were involved! However, try to deviate from your itinerary and you met with resistance - it was a "set program" always on (or ahead) of schedule.

En route to Halong Bay, all arable land was divided into tiny plots of land and utilized for producing crops (such as rice and cabbage) and fish farming. To a lesser extent, we noticed flowers: chrysanthemums, roses, gerberas . . . absolutely exquisite. We've noticed a lot of beautiful fresh flowers in the markets. I read an article in an English newspaper that I picked up at the Hanoi airport that had an article on flowers and apparently fresh flowers have only been popular here the last five years or so.

For Tet (the lunar or Vietnamese New Year - same as the Chinese New Year - which begins February 9), we also noticed people moving trees to plant in pots - mimosa, cherry blossum, bougainvillea. Once the trees finish blooming, they are cut off and the roots are once again planted in the ground to grow a new tree.

Halong Bay is a Unesco World Heritage Site. It means "dragon descending into the sea". Huge limestone cliffs jut sharply out of the beautiful blue-green water (reminded me greatly of the Guilin mountains in China). Sadly, we noted all the debris floating in the water (old shoes, styrofoam, bits of discarded vegetables, corks, you name it). Vietnam struggles with pollution and still suffers from the results of Agent Orange, the defolliant the Americans used on vegetation during the Vietnam War. Like Thailand, the only wildlife we saw were a few birds. When we arrived, the bay was wreathed in fog, but luckily cleared on our second day there.

It's interesting to spend the night on a boat in the harbour, being lulled asleep by gentle waves. Accompanied by the whistling and singing of tradional-sounding songs by some of the crew members added a certain authenticity to it all. That, and many of the houseboats of the local fishers that were moored all around us. Some of our Australian and American boat mates were not very enamoured with the accommodations, however, and loudly complained about it. Part of travelling is being able to accept and adapt to your surroundings. Sure, it wasn't immaculate. We even saw a rat on deck! Perhaps that is why all the boats seemed to have a dog aboard. (Ours was a cute yellow pup - we asked what is name was and was told he didn't have one so someone in our group dubbed him "Supper". Not nice, I know! They do eat dog in many SE Asian countries - Thailand, Vietnam, China. (We were told in Thailand that the black ones are the best!)

Two of the more interesting travellers on board were a couple of "older" women (one in her 40s and one in her 50s) from BC. Laura, 45, an anthropologist, taught full time at Kwantlen College in Surrey and part time at SFU. Her most recent research is focused on women and AIDS (probably influenced by the fact that her younger sister had contracted AIDS some years ago). Georgina, 58, from 100 Mile House, was employed in the film industry.

The food here thus far has not been as consistently good as in Thailand (not as much variety or as tasty). I have yet to have anything as good as the Vietnamese food we get at home! A couple of key rules to follow when eating/drinking in developing countries: don't drink the local water (that includes ice), drink bottled water only; and eat only fruits and vegetables you can peel (unless they've been cooked). Beer is usually a good choice as it's pasteurized (and seems to be acceptably good world-wide). Beware of the local hooch, though! Some of it (rice wine in Asia) can be pretty potent. I've also seen liquor that has snakes and scorpions (and various other delectable critters) in it. A Dutch fellow on one of our tours bought some and offered Martin a drink which he accepted. I was going to touch it when hell froze over. (FYI: Martin said it was very strong.) I have no desire to taste some of the more questionable delecacies - snake, eel, ick, yuk, phooey.

This is the third communist country I've been to (China and Cuba being the others, but China was 20 years ago and I know it's changed dramatically since then.) It seems to be a different brand of communism here than in Cuba. We've haven't noticed as strong a miliary presence, for one thing. Religion is also openly practised. Although most Vietnamese call themselves Buddhist, according to our guidebook, the religion is more of a combination of Buddhism, Confucionism, Taosim and animism. Interesting. Many people also worship their ancestors and have altars in their homes. Family is very important to Vietnamese. When asked how many children we have and say that we have none, their response is a heartfelt and genuine, "I am sorry".

Vietnam has a long history of being occupied by other countries. For a very long time, it was under the control of the Chinese. From the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries, it was the French, then the Japanese during the war, followed by the Americans during the Vietnam War. The Vietnamese, however, stress that they only look to the future and are now friends with all their former occupiers.

Tet (the Vietnamese New Year) begins February 9. The preparations have already begun with banners being strung across streets and vendors gearing up to sell their red and gilt decorations.

As I write this, Martin sits behind me at the bar sipping a beer. Internet cafes are all over Thailand and Vietnam. In Vietnam, these cafes also serve as travel agents where you can book flights, buses and tours. Certainly makes life easy for the traveller here - but you have to be wary of the scams!
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