As the Vietnamese crow flies, Ha Long Bay looks like a short enough distance from Hanoi (170km), but when you take into account the intermittent traffic and terrible roads en route, it takes a good four hours to get there, one way. Monsieur and I weren’t to be dissuaded from visiting this UNESCO World Heritage Site, however. We’d already marvelled at its natural beauty, both captured in photographs and as a location for films such as Indochine. With a name meaning ‘Descending Dragon’ and its maze of limestone karsts and islets spread across more than 1500 square kilometres, we were now determined to see it for ourselves.
Sure enough, the drive was long, but well worth the subsequent fatigue. Our guide had booked us our very own junk to take us around part of the Bay and we were fascinated to see one of the five floating fishing villages of the area.
In total, the population of Ha Long Bay clocks in at around 1600 people. They’re sustained by the Bay’s own micro-economy, which includes capture fishing, pearl cultivation and tourism. These people are water people. They live on water and make their living from it. Our guide told us that some of the fishing village inhabitants have never set foot on the mainland. My jaw dropped at that little nugget of information, because it was so unexpected. Yet, looking around us, we could see that these fisher folk were at complete ease here. Perhaps the thought of a mainland with cars and roads and traffic and land-lubbing ways was too much for them. Everything they needed was here: on, in or around the water. Why leave?
The scale of some of the islets dwarfed the little floating villages, making their inhabitants look like insects. As we passed this house, we watched this chap enjoying a quiet beer. Judging by the wealth of his catch, already organised in a grid of plastic containers, he deserved a break. The freshly-painted balustrade, doors and window surrounds showed that this fisherman wasn’t just industrious; he was house-proud, too.
It was only our second day in Vietnam, but we could already see that it was never too young to learn about commerce. Here, a mother and her tiny daughter row across the Bay together, going from boat to boat selling snacks and soft drinks. Their business was a mobile floating shop.
Here’s another floating shop, this time stocked with various fruit and vegetables – a floating green grocer’s.
This aspect of Ha Long Bay was an eye-opener. It made me consider all the things we take for granted in a regular life on land and wonder about how they translated into life on the water. Was there a water doctor to call when your child fell ill? Would you learn to swim in a bay where your childish feet could touch the bottom? Or would you be literally thrown in at the deep end, and learn with the fish? How could you hide a burgeoning romance from curious parents when everyone lives at such close quarters? What would you do if you were born allergic to Neptune’s spoils.
Fortunately, Monsieur and I don’t have fish allergies (apart from the memory of a Killer Oyster that once caused me intense discomfort), for the crew on board the junk had prepared us lunch and much of it had been fished by the dwellers of Descending Dragon Bay.