Ha Long Bay And On To Hoi An

By

Leonard Zwelling

The two plus hour bus ride from downtown Hanoi to the boat dock at Ha Long Bay was boring, but at least it was on a highway with few motor bikes. The trip was broken up by yet another obligatory stop at a Vietnamese tourist trap, this one selling pearls. The store is decorated with pictures of Hillary Clinton, Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel, all in pearls and each suggesting that the powerful have all stopped by and bought pearls there. I really doubt it.

Having kept our Vietnamese money and Amex cards in our pockets we pressed further south and east to Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO preserved world heritage site. It is a beautiful expanse of limestone islands covered with trees. Fishermen still continue to make a living in its waters. But the Vietnamese have other plans. Disneyfication.

It’s not working as the shells of several abandoned buildings that were probably supposed to be luxury hotels or condos litter the road up to the dock where we boarded the boat on which we would live for the next 24 hours. This site of natural beauty may be a bit too close to the People’s Republic of China. I have been impressed that the internet is not a taken-for-granted thing here and that CNN in Viet Nam has a ten minute delay indicated by the fact that the posted time on the screen is always ten minutes behind the actual time. No Google in Beijing.

The gourmet food and service were exemplary on the small cruise ship (there were fewer than 15 people on board). The ship made its way to a docking site at an anchored position off shore where a small skip took us to the largest cave (Sung Sot) in the area. It is huge series of limestone rooms that the sea and rain had carved out of a mountain through which we walked. It was an interesting journey to see what nature has wrought through the stone. Another similar journey was taken the following morning in a driving rain to ascend the mountain trail of Ti Top Island named after the Russian cosmonaut Ghermann Titov, the second man to circle the Earth in space. Apparently he once visited the island best known for its over 400 ascending steps to the top for great views of the rest of Ha Long Bay. But this ascent is not the preferred activity on a rainy day. We did it anyway, but were glad to get back to the boat for breakfast and a long ride back toward Hanoi and the airport to fly to Da Nang near the city of Hoi An, known for its old district and many silk and tailoring shops.

Our new guide was Quoc, a native of the highlands with vivid boyhood memories of the Tet Offensive in 1968. This was a key battle won by the Americans but which demonstrated the resolve of the North and hastened the influx of more American troops, to no avail. It was the beginning of the end of the American public’s support for the Viet Nam War.

Hoi An’s old city is the center of tourism and commerce in the area. Da Nang, the city into which we flew, was most known in the war for the huge U. S. Air Force base there. The remnants of big hangars are visible from the road from Da Nang to Hoi An.

Now Hoi An is tourist destination and the narrow streets of the old city teem with people from all over the world looking for bargain deals on trinkets, clothing, shoes and especially silk. I actually got to see real silk worms eat the mulberry bushes that lead them to form the silk cocoons that are harvested and turned into fabric and woven right there in the store. I had always wanted to see where silk came from and now I had.

This place, like Hanoi, is shocking in its display of rampant capitalism in this Communist country, but our guide reminds us that there are only 5 Communist countries left in the world—Viet Nam, North Korea, Cuba, China and Laos. (Russia is not officially a Communist country although a Communist Party still exists there and in other countries).

Once again, the message from Viet Nam is that we may have lost the war, but we are winning the peace. Like life, freedom will find a way.

Leonard Zwelling