Fourteen hours on a bus and I go from mid-point Vietnam in Danang to the Northern capital of Hanoi. But I will leave this city for another time and skip over instead to Cat Ba, the largest island of Halong Bay.
Halong Bay (and Lan Ha Bay which is the same thing just different province) is supposedly one of those "must see wonders" of the world. Legend says the karst mountains, at a distance appearing as one continuous chain but which are in fact separated by quiet coves and smooth expanses of water, were created by the tail of a passing dragon rising and falling as his wings carried him further inland. Most of the islands are uninhabited, there being few places to dock a boat and building a house on sheer rock face an engineering feat most Vietnamese rather not take the time to attempt (honestly, who would?). Old junks with orange sails billowing out in the wind could almost pass for pirate ships at anchor if it wasn't for the roar of their engines. Sailing between sunlight and shadows, passing beneath the natural cliffs plunging into the sea is like an image pulled from the great adventure stories.
We take kayakes deep beneath one of the rocks, the passageway narrowing to the point where only one boat can pass and so dark that all you can do is sense the proximity of the rock brushing against your head. Touch it and you feel slime, the light-less plants sliding between your fingers. Passing back into the sunlight is like being reborn, and we all flinch and smile. We spend the rest of the afternoon floating on calm waters and watching as the sun plays hide-and-seek behind the karsts.
But if truth be told, in reality Halong Bay isn't as beautiful as people say. If it is, then they must never have looked down or taken their eyes from the distant horizon to see what exactly they are sailing through. The water is still its natural green, but garbage floats on the top like plankton, churned and carried throughout the bay by the currents. The diesel of boat engines creates large black clouds around every craft, most of which carry tourists around and more often than not our trash is dumped out the back without us even knowing about it. We are like gods carried above the poverty,
our eyes conveniently able to avoid the fishing villages floating in the shadows of the mountains, their owners fishing a pittance out of the water.
The duality of Vietnam, its beauty and its underside, hit me hardest in Halong Bay. I think maybe it's because everyone raved about the great experience but no one mentioned the truth. And I think too that after almost a month of seeing the same things over and over again, of watching as people go greedy-eyed as I pass, labeling me a Westerner with wealth, of seeing mothers encourage their children to beg from us, I think I couldn't block it out anymore.
That's a negative note to end this blog on, but maybe it will help us think too that what we are shown and what we should see can be two very different things.
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