Letter from Vietnam: Calmer waters found aboard the junks at Halong Bay

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Tourists can get away from the throng of Hanoi on the serene water of the Unesco World Heritage Site

Judyth Gregory-Smith
Guardian Weekly, Tuesday 6 September 2011 13.59 BST

Away from the crowds: a tourist boat sails past the islands of Halong Bay. Photograph: Philippe Lopez/Getty

If you want to get away from the 6 million or more people riding 1 million or more motorbikes in Hanoi, Halong Bay, east of the capital, is the place for you. Halong Bay is a Unesco World Heritage Site encompassing 1,500sq km of quiet water, dotted with thousands of uninhabited limestone islands, thrusting upwards in sheer-sided cliffs. Yes, there are plenty of tourists, but they are spread among a dozen or two wooden junks and it is quiet, very quiet, most of the time.

After a couple of hours on the bus, we stopped for coffee and our guide, Anh, told us how Agent Orange, a chemical dropped in the American War had, over many generations, maimed the people who made the handicraft we were about to see.

We were impressed by the quality of lacquer ware, basketry, painting and painstaking embroidery and astonished to see the cashier, who has no hands, skillfully manipulate a calculator.

A forest of masts greeted us at Halong Bay as wooden junks of all shapes and sizes rode at anchor awaiting our arrival. We boarded and climbed up dark wooden stairs. “There could be termites here,” suggested seven year old Cooper glumly. We entered our cabin and he saw the emergency equipment hanging on the wall.

“If we have to break the window to get out, can I do it?” asked the little ghoul: ready to take the hammer off the wall in an instant.

So before we sank or caught fire I suggested we explore the junk. There were cabins on the first floor and cabins and the dining room on the second. The top deck was part open where passengers could work on their suntan and part covered where people could read their ebooks.

The fitness enthusiasts took off to kayak around tiny islets and in and out of caves. The rest of us preferred to be rowed round a floating village. There are seven such villages in Halong Bay. This one – Cua Van Lang Chai – has 130 houses floating on huge blocks of polystyrene camouflaged by tarpaulins.

“Those are rich people,” the guide said to my surprise. “Look, inside their house they have a television and a DVD player!”

“Do they have electricity?” I asked.

“No, they have a generator.”

I saw the owner’s fishing boat pulled alongside the house. The spars on which the nets would hang that evening stuck out almost at right angles and added hugely to the size of the boat. A row of glass lamps strung out in the rigging. Tonight, the fishermen would sail for two or three hours to a promising spot and light the lamps to attract fish: particularly squid.

As well as the floating houses there was a floating primary school and a floating clinic. And there were fish farms growing elephant clams, mussels and oysters for food or for pearls. An ugly but useful boat was made of concrete. To my surprise it could move, indeed it collected fresh water from Halong City for drinking and cooking.

We learned that Halong was named for a dragon which, legend has it, came down from the mountains swishing its tail and created the deep pools between the tall limestone islands.

“I’d like to see the dragon,” said Cooper, “but only if it doesn’t eat me.” So it seems we may be looking for friendly dragons the next time we come to Halong Bay.

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