Sea Dragons

Halong BayEvening anchor in HalongFruit vendorHalong viewBoat dining

[mouse click on a photo to enlarge it]

You probably associate the Gulf of Tonkin with the first phoney pretext for a president’s taking America into undeclared war on a foreign country. (Perhaps I’m too young to know of earlier ones. Mexico? For those even younger than I, know that honest-faced Colin Powell’s glossy Power-Point presentation to the UN assuring us of Iraq’s possession of wmd’s was not the first such pretext.) Less ephemeral than the phantom Vietnamese attack on American warships are the hundreds of limestone mountain tops jutting out of the Gulf of Tonkin in Halong Bay — where the dragon descended to the sea. It’s an errily beautiful area which really has to be explored by boat to be appreciated. (If you’re not ready to hop a plane to Hanoi, at least check it out on Google-Earth, or rent “A Beautiful Country”, a Vietnamese film from 2004, for a vicarious look.)

The wimpy way to get there is to sign up for a package tour in Hanoi; do the three-day / two-night version or better. Though an Australian friend opines that maritime hitch-hiking works well.

Our boat accommodated 14 guests with dining deck, cabins below, and sun deck above. A daily swim was simply a matter of dropping anchor and jumping in. We managed a couple of terrestrial hikes, to a panoramic view from a mountain top on the largest island, Cat Ba, and to a huge cave discovered first in 1919. Another day we stopped at one of the floating villages that dot the bay — for the most part the mountains rise so steeply from the sea as to preclude land-based fishing villages — to avail ourselves of kayaks, and thus to gain access to a sandy swimming cove and a completely secluded bay entered through a small, natural tunnel in the limestone rock. Enchanting is the only word that comes to mind.

I can’t give you figures for the impact of Vietnam’s developing tourist industry on the country’s economy, but believe it to be substantial. The logistics of transportation and finding “safe” (hygienically, not physically) restaurants and lodging, for the non-Vietnamese speaker, are probably best left to the tour operators — of which there is an abundance of these in Hanoi; you’ll have more trouble avoiding them than finding them.

But why so few Americans among the throngs? Brits, Dutch, French, Spanish, Italians, even a few prissy Germans, have taken the plunge. And among the residual benefits of sloughed colonialism are excellent coffee and baguettes. I didn’t perceive so much as a whiff of anti-Americanism. To appropriate an Atlanta slogan, the Vietnamese are too busy to hate. And if, in a few moments of reflection, your conscience might pick you a bit, that’s a not so bad.

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