I don’t know too much about UNESCO, but they seem like a pretty together bunch of people. They’ve resurrected the town of Hoi An, creating a tourist destination that admittedly has its hokey moments, but has also put a bunch of down and out people back to work and given them some pride in their heritage. One of the northern Vietnamese provinces has been known for its hauntingly beautiful folk songs. As the area industrializes and goes commercial, the oral history is being lost. UNESCO managed to get wind of the music and has designated the tradition of these particular songs as a cultural treasure. The music has been recorded and it would not surprise me to learn that destination visits to the area by folkies from all over the planet will soon be available. In a related gesture, the outlying Vietnamese who have been required to hunt wild and endangered animals for a living are being offered alternatives. While it is easy to pontificate and sit in judgment from the comforts of our societies (emphasis on comfort), a father with 5 hungry children does not have the luxury to evaluate the global effect of capturing a monkey and selling it to a restaurant to earn $20 to feed his family for a month. Likewise the farmer who cuts down a mahogany tree and gets enough cash to buy medicine for his mother is more concerned with his survival than the planet’s. I am pleased to report that preliminary baby sized steps are being taken to end this seemingly hopeless cycle. Farmers are being taught the benefits of sustainable tourism. Instead of killing the pangolin for its meat, being able to point out the animal in its natural habitat to a Dooney & Bourke clad tourist is something that he will be able to do seven days a week – for more money than he’d get for the carcass. And – here’s the good part – you can’t kill the same pangolin 7 days in a row. It’s the beast that keeps on giving. And on top of that – they will not become extinct!! What is the downside to this deal? None that I can think of. If the pangolin population runs wild and start forming triad gangs and Mah Johng clubs, come back and criticize me then. There is a future; it will require time and work but the perplexing question as to how to replace forestry and hunting income has an answer.
UNESCO is also in the process of identifying seven new natural Wonders of the World. To that end, Halong Bay has been put on the nomination list. Halong Bay is situated in the Gulf of Tonkin. You may dimly recall that name; it was the location where the USS Maddox warship was supposedly the victim of an unprovoked attacked by the Vietnamese in the early 60’s. In response the US Senate passed a resolution, cleverly entitled the Tonkin Resolution, which permitted the introduction of direct US military force into Vietnam. The vote in the House of Representatives was 417-1; the senate was 98-2, proving that there was a modicum of sanity in the government at the time. A very small modicum, but a modicum none the less. The entire story surrounding the attack, however,was fabricated to justify intervention. On top of that, US soldiers had been fighting illegally in Vietnam since 1960 or so. They were assigned to bases in Korea, but were given false ID tags and bivouacked in Laos and Cambodia, participating regularly on missions into ‘Nam. This was not propaganda fed to us by one of the museums in Hanoi. A few months earlier some golf buddies and I were in Orlando and had a few minutes of a backlog to get to the first tee. The starter , a Vietnam vet,was a retiree in his 70’s. During the wait, it was he, as one of those first illegally posted US Army Rangers, who recounted the story to us.
I digress. Halong Bay is a magnificent archipelago consisting of 2,000 limestone peaks protruding from the Gulf.
They are situated quite close to Haiphong Harbour, another famous waterway mined by the US during the war. I digress. The water is a shimmering shade of greenish-blue. Well, I would imagine it to shimmer should it ever have the opportunity to reflect the sunlight. It doesn’t shimmer cloud cover and mist so well, and that is what we were exposed to for the 24 hours or so that we were there. Weather aside (and it was cold too), the setting is idyllic. Lori and I found ourselves on a two level junk
sharing living quarters with three other families and two other couples. All told we were 16 together, almost all Australians, and we again had a delightful guide on board with us. The cabin was more than adequate, the food delicious and there was a bar open all day. What could be bad?
The boat cruised between the various Pinnacles; the crew was Top Flight, never more than a Call Away. For exercise, we docked at a small islet known as Titov Island, named in 1962 when Marshall Titov of the USSR accompanied Ho Chi Minh on a tour of the region. The renaming was supposedly an act of friendship, but I interpret as either a giant suck up to the Russkies by Ho or a calculated swipe at the Americans. Likely both. There is also a sandy beach at the base of the mountain. Usually people opt to swim rather than climb, but climatic conditions dictated unanimous upward adventure. 461 steps later we arrived at the summit. There were a few trinket sellers on the way up, offering the usual supply of carvings, cigarettes, fans, key chains and the like. I’m ready to open up my own stand but I’d be selling oxygen and insurance policies.
The view from the top was spectacular, offering a panoramic vista of junks and a sprinkling of islands of all differing sizes. It was splendid. I suggest you go on line to check it out. My wife’s talents, as great as they are with her Nikon, was not able to capture the full glory that I’m sure is issued forth courtesy of a sunny sky. I would suggest a visit to Halong Bay, actually, but check the weather conditions prior to booking. If you’re not that adventurous, at least go to the UNESCO site and ring in a vote for the Bay, even if it is only based on our say so.
Once back on board, we set off in a different direction. The afternoon session was divided in two options. One could either visit a floating village
or kayak into a Bat Cave. All but 3 opted for the village people. I chose to Go West. My reasoning was solid – better exercise, no chance of being harassed to buy more souvenirs, and I was hoping to finally meet Bruce Wayne and Robin. The kayaks were 2 seaters.
On the first one sat Joey and his father Graham. They represented 40% of a delightful Ozzie family that we became friendly with quite quickly. One of their daughters was celebrating her 17th birthday that day and her mother, Amanda, was tall, beautiful with an engaging smile and a twinkle in her eye. The whole family was a delight to watch interact. The other Ozzie family was a husband and wife with 2 kids, also delightful. The only problem, Lori and I realized, reviewing the events of the day as we got into bed, was that we were a good decade older than the parents of the families. We felt totally connected to them and their offspring as well, but the reality of the situation drove itself home unmistakably. It’s tickin’ and it’s tickin’ LOUD.
I kayaked with the guide for about a kilometer until we reached the cave. The cave was actually an opening through one of the peaks.
It led into a small lagoon that was surrounded by mountains and was alarmingly still and silent. When we stopped and raised paddles, the silence was palpable and engulfing. There were sea urchins and coral in the shallows and I also spotted a red starfish. It looked strikingly in line with all other political symbols we’ve seen since we’ve arrived in this country and my hat goes off to the breeders who have managed to extend the party vision to sub-marine life forms. There was nary a bat to be seen going through the cave, although mercifully, one had the good manners to fly in and cling to some dark surface as we returned back through the cavern heading to the ship.
Lori and the rest had a chance to be exposed to the village, which may house the largest known floating crap game in existence. There was a school, a market, a family structure and all of the other accouterments normally associated with building a village on terra firma. Basements excepted, of course.
Evening consisted of another meal, another demonstration of decorating food and some general small talk that is the focus of so many a pleasant holiday. I had the chance for some one on one time with the guide as we sat on the deck discussing life and again I feel lucky to hear of ambition and desire to move ahead. Quon became a tour guide after leaving a job at the nearby casino where he had started off as a dealer and graduated to pit boss. The Chinese owners raked millions out of the establishment but seriously underpaid their local staff. Quon was also a trainer of new dealers. When they arrived from the Philippines or Thailand or Laos looking for work, Quon taught them their jobs. Within a few months, they were earning 10 times the pay of the Vietnamese. It was demoralizing working in that environment so Quon chucked the job and began a career on the tour boats. He was not making much more money but had more time off to spend with his wife and baby son. Again, I was witnessing the seismic generational shift. Twenty years ago opting for family time over work was unheard of. This is the start of a value shift which is only one element leading to a social change the likes of which Ho could never imagine in his wildest dreams. Another manifestation of the change in generational values is seen in the clothing worn by the post-starvation generation. Today it’s all about style. Whereas a dozen years ago, a child received a shirt, or if very fortunate, a pair of pants as a gift to usher in the Tet New Year. The garment was the only gift of the year and was expected to last well beyond the upcoming 12 month period. Now the 50 and below generation prefers a cheaply made flash garment, disposable at the end of the current fashion season. Where as once an article of clothing was valued for durability, today’s vestments have the lifespan reflecting the sartorial equivalent of a fruit fly. One season and out.
Our last Halong Bay activity was a geological eye opener. A cave had been discovered a decade ago by a couple of French women who were touring the region. A quick boat ride, up a hundred steps and we were staring into a yawning crevasse that yielded natural wonders at every juncture. A subterranean cathedral, built by millions of years of water dripping through limestone; each drop containing a microscopic deposit of residue which resulted in hundreds of stalagmites and stalactites spread out over acres of underground plains. They soared twenty or more meters in height. Mostly in earth tones of yellow, brown and ochre, the cleverly arranged lighting produced hues of red, green, yellow and other tones that added to the magic of the environment.
I had never been inside a real cave and the firsthand viewing of petrified giant icicles was a true add-on to my life experience.
As we headed back to Hanoi for our final evening, I casually mentioned to Duoc that I had seen this magnificent piece of antique pottery that had been dredged up from the bed of the South China Sea. It was part of a private collection in Hoi An. Duoc, showing off his knowledge of the local area, suggested that the piece originated from this little town called Bat Trang, situated just outside of Hanoi. He explained that families had been there for generations and supplied emperors with finely crafted ceramics for over a millennium. Getting there would not be a problem, I was assured and since the afternoon was wide open, I said what the heck, or whatever the Vietnamese equivalent of that is.
We arrive in Bat Trang, a sleepy little town with numerous emporiums. By this time I was becoming fixated with antique Vietnamese pottery. I breezed through the customary row upon row of ceramics hankering for a look at the good stuff. The tea pots, intricately decorated plates, and planters were lined up nose to tail on the shelves. Each one was perfect and identical to the other. The display called to mind numerous visits to Davis Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, where hundreds if not thousands of military planes are positioned so precisely that a row of 50 planes looks like one plane if you are standing dead center in front of the first aircraft. I was going to mention the likeness to Duoc but remembering what Charlie had done to the US airbases in ‘Nam a few decades back, I felt that the US has enough of their own problems without a bunch of guys in black PJs sneaking onto the base and destroying more jets, just for old time’s sake.
It turns out that these cranked out tea sets and plates are actually tossed on the wheel, trimmed, glazed and painted one at a time and each by hand. What seemed like an indictment of modern assembly line automation was actually a celebration of individual talent, skill, perseverance and a steady hand and good eyesight.
Eventually, Duoc got me into the inner sanctum. The owner showed us the locked cabinet which contained pieces that traced their origin back from 200 to 800 years. As is often unfortunately the situation, one piece called out to me. I heard my name clearly spoken with an ancient Vietnamese accent. Two jars and a tea cup and saucer later, the owner, her husband, the store manager and I are hard at work negotiating the best price. After an hour of haggling, I explained that my infatuation began with a viewing of relics in Hoi An. I went on and on about this shell encrusted one of a kind magnificent vase that I saw there. Apparently, the grandfather of the store owner, unsurprisingly, was a bit of a collector himself. The girls excused themselves and within 15 minutes had brought samples of Grandaddy’s loot to the store. Included in the collection was the brother of the piece that we had seen the previous week in Hoi An. The only difference was where the crustaceans had chosen to affix themselves. So much for one of a kind. Maybe coincidence, maybe they were given away in cereal boxes (puffed rice?) way back when, but it didn’t matter. Seeing these pieces rekindled the same sense in me and I was grateful to relive the moment. While Grandpa’s collection was not for sale at any price, within 20 minutes, I was offered the famous jar for a measly $5,000. If I were made out of money, I’d have bought it, but having seen 2 such pieces within a week, I felt that my next visit to any of the myriad antique shops on Notre Dame Street back home would likely turn up a couple of dozen of them to choose from.
In the mean time, the final chapter on the antiques is not yet written. I’ve paid for them plus $103 for air shipping. They were to be here in a week and that was last week. I hope to have a better souvenir of our side trip to Bat Trang than being ripped off by a lovely family who may have been in the tourist fleecing business since Marco Polo showed up.