Halong Bay is one of the natural marvels of the world. Located in northern Vietnam's Gulf of Tonkin, over 3,000 strange rock formations rise straight up from the emerald waters as if defying the laws of geography. Clouds float ominously by, and the wind whips up whirlpools of mist. In the winter months, there's an eerie chill and everything is damp.
Thousands of years have eroded what was once an enormous limestone plateau into striking karst formations: fissures, caves, sinkholes and sculpted rock protrusions. Throughout the bay the old mountain tops rise from the water like obelisks, pillars and giant thumbnails reaching for the sky. Halong is a place where the beauty is mysterious and the mystery beautiful.
Jill and I motor along in an old wooden junk on a four-hour ride to Cat Ba Island. The journey there and the magic of Halong Bay make me realize how important Vietnam's history is to its identity.
"Halong means 'where the dragon descends into the sea,'" our driver says to me slowly. Son is a thin, wisp of a man, and he struggles with his English. As the legend goes, the dragon ran across the coast, its tail gouging out valleys and gorges. After it plunged into the sea, water filled the holes the dragon had left behind.
"Now," says Son, "only the highest parts of the land are visible." He and other locals believe the dragon still lives in the depths of the bay. Local sailors often report sightings of a Loch Ness-type beast called the Tarasque.
I remain skeptical but intrigued, and this trip across the bay is a chance to see the Tarasque and dispel any doubt. I sit on the bow watching the bizarre rock formations drift pastcamera in hand—should the monster appear. The scene inspires an uneasy fear and gives Halong Bay a supernatural mood. It's easy to see why so many Vietnamese artists choose Halong Bay as their subject. You'll see its likeness painted again and again in the new galleries opened from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City.
The Gulf of Tonkin and Red River basin (which includes Hanoi) was the first region in Vietnam to fall under foreign occupation. The Vietnamese people's proud history of resistance starts with the Chinese invasion in the second century B.C.
The Chinese named Vietnam "Annam," or "Pacified South," but the country was far from submissive. Its history is defined by the struggle to release itself from the yoke of foreign rule. After a thousand years of tyranny, forced labor and demands for tribute, Vietnam finally gained autonomy from Chinaonly to be colonized by France in the late 19th century.
In an interesting case of historical foreshadowing, Roosevelt offered Indochina to Chaing Kai Shek at the 1945 Yalta conference. "We don't want it," was Chaing's response.
Throughout present-day Vietnam, a handful of heroes' names tend to monopolize street signs: Ngo Quien, Ly Thuong Kiet, Le Loi, and Ho Chi Minh. These are the freedom-fighters that this small country's people take inspiration from. As the scholar Nguyen Trai wrote in his "Great Proclamation":
"Our people long ago established Vietnam as an independent nation with its own civilization. We have our own mountains and our own rivers, our own customs and traditions, and these are different from those of the foreign country to the north. We have sometimes been weak and sometimes powerful, but at no time have we suffered from a lack of heroes."
We continue across the bay towards Cat Ba island, weaving through the maze of stony edifices. The swirling fog has lifted slightly, but the sun still can't make its way through. All I can hear is the sound of our engine.
We approach a cave. Its mouth is tremendous, and we slow to look inside the dark cavern. Many of the islands have caves and smaller grottoes, formed over the eons from underground rivers and eroding limestone.
"This is the famous Hang Dau Go, the 'Cave of the Wooden Stakes,'" says Son.
The French called it Grotte des Merveilles, the Cave of Marvels. The huge outer cavern leads to two others deep within. The walls of the second chamber are said to sparkle with an ominous light, and strange sounds emanate when the wind blows through.
"Why it is called the 'Cave of the Wooden Stakes,'" I ask Son.
"In this cave, Tran Hung Dao stored thousands of bamboo stakes. Our people made them sharp with steel tips." This was back in the 13th century, when the Mongol Horde had conquered China and demanded the right to cross Vietnam to attack the kingdom of Champa. Warriors (300,000) came by ship and Tran Hung Dao lured the fleet up the Bach Dang River during high tide. After hours of battle, the tide let out, exposing the stakes they had set in the river-bed the previous night. The Mongol fleet was impaled, and sank.
I was beginning to understand Vietnamese.
Our four-hour crossing had turned to six, and we eventually near Cat Ba. Small fishing boats pass on their way to and from the island's village. This part of the bay is home to over 200 species of fish and 500 types of mollusks, but the seamen compete with seal and dolphin for fishing rights.
A man and his son haul in nets, hand-over-hand, as his wife collects their catch in vats. I watch them work as a family. Peeking from the covered hull, a small child swings a baby on a hammock. Their boat is their home. As they pass I see the pots, pans, cooking utensils and a string of clothes hung out to dry.
Most industries in today's Vietnam are labor-intensive family affairs. Take rice cultivation, for example: Men, women and children, side by side, break their backs every day stooping over their paddies, or transferring water by bucket from canals. The entire country is a quiltwork of paddies, Vietnam being an incredibly fertile land for growing rice.
In the 1980's, with state owned industries, Vietnam was a rice importer. The anti-capitalist campaigns of the 1970's had stifled economic growth and political freedoms. When the Sixth Party Congress allowed private ownership in 1986, the trade balance started shifting. More recent economic reforms, along with shakeups of the Politburo and Communist Party, have helped Vietnam bring itself out of massive debt. In about 15 years, it has become the world's third largest rice exporter, all without the use of modern farming equipment. With the incentive for personal gain, the Vietnamese have utilized their astonishing work ethic.
We arrive, finally, our bones aching from sitting on the rickety boat. Cat Ba Island looms straight out of the sea. It seems a single subtropical evergreen forest set on rolling hills. Scanning the rocky cliffs, I can imagine the freshwater swamps, waterfalls, and lakes that Son has told us about.
Most of the land is uninhabitable, yet the fishing village swarms with activity. Aside from a few hotels and restaurants for tourists, just about everyone lives in a floating townhundreds of bobbing and creaking boats in the harbor. Even the gas station is a floating raft.
As we disembark our junk, Son says to me, "We ride together today, but I don't know where you are from."
I had been asked this many times in Vietnam and often had difficulty answering. In her book Seeing Vietnam, American journalist Susan Brownmiller writes that coming here she carried a suitcase, a small carry-on, and 2,000 pounds of cultural baggage. At times like these I knew what she meant.
"America," I reply sheepishly.
"Oh, America!" he says, enthusiastically. "Statue of Liberty, Grand Canyon!" I can't comprehend his excitement because I figure that he, and every other Vietnamese, should have a bad taste in their mouth when they meet Americans.
But for the Vietnamese, the so-called "American War" is but one in a list of vanquished invaders, and they don't bother to hold a grudge. This is especially true with the younger generation that grew up intrigued by free markets and heavy metal music. For these people, the present is as historical as the past. And whether it's the local's adherence to their belief in legends and dragons, the current boom in contemporary art, or the back-breaking work to improve people's lives, I've watched the Vietnamese make the most of their new-found opportunities.
I wish them well in their efforts.
Until the next time, safe travels.
All original material Copyright © Dan Kaplan. All Rights Reserved.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication