July 23, 2008

Dispatch: On the Way to Ha Long Bay

Black Travels community member, Claire Garcia is currently traveling through China and Vietnam, and has been sending us dispatches along the way.

My children have often told me that things that I see always remind me of books. Well, Ha Long Bay reminded me of my second-favorite novel in the world, Joseph Conrad's The Secret Sharer.

As I leaned on the rail of our classic junk (such a precise replica of the traditional boat that all the various mechanisms that would now be made out of iron or steel were wood), gazing out over the placid seascape of still water and jutting islands, lines of Conrad's kept coming back to me during our 2 days and a night at sea.

For Conrad, this northern part of the South China sea was part of the Gulf of Siam; to the French colonists and later the American military forces, it was the Gulf of Tonkin. Now, to the recently (in their long history) unified nation of Viet Nam, it is Ha Long "Descending Dragon") Bay.

To get to Ha Long, one must go 3 hours north of Ha Noi along a very exciting highway. I now know that my husband's opinion that three vehicles going in two directions can pass each other if no one loses their head is true~ and add a multitude of scooters and bicycles, water buffalo and chickens and goats and you can imagine that it was better not to look out of the front window of
the mini van.

There is an average of 3 motor scooters per household in Vietnam. Most people do not have cars. Among the more startling things I have seen on the backs of motor scooters:
  • a brand new washing machine;
  • a cow;
  • four porcelain vases, each about 5 feet tall;
Of course, it is routine to see families, including infants, who would have taken up a whole minivan on one scooter, and mountains of various produce.

We also passed several Vietnamese houses, most of which were extremely narrow (one room wide), three or four stories high, with wide verandahs on each story, with elaborate pagoda style roofs. They are usually colored in "bright pastels"-- a term I would have considered an oxymoron before seeing the yellows, blues, pinks, and greens of the houses in the towns along the highway.

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