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Bay Watch on an Unsettling Shore


A coral vendor practices the 'hard sell' technique. Copyright: Victoria Brooks.A Vietnamese woman holds a branch of coral in outstretched hands. It resembles a spray of precious white flowers. On the horizon limestone monoliths hide in the mist like dark dragons risen from the sapphire waters, one behind the other like shadows reflected in a prism. It is morning on Halong Bay.

 

Like the legendary actress Catherine Deneuve at the conclusion of the French film Indochine, I am on a teak sailing junk. I whisper the magic name "Halong" and feel a timbre of sensuality as my tongue flickers against my palette and a soft breath passes through my lips. Halong – Bay of the Descending Dragon.

My husband, Guy, and I have the 28-foot vessel to ourselves, except for two boatmen and a raft of diminutive junks and undersized rowboats loaded with cargoes of undersea booty. The boats stick to our sides like remora on a shark. The tiny junks are floating homes to sea gypsies, typically a family of two adults, their children and maybe a dog. Each woman in turn holds her wares high. All of them hawk coral poached from the disappearing reef. One especially persistent woman cajoles, scolds, then begs in sign language and Pidgin English for us to buy. "Madame, Madame you buy, you buy…" She places the branch of coral gently at my feet and implores me with every ounce of her being. I am so tempted by the coral's exquisite undersea beauty – it is like being offered a unicorn's horn. Instead I give the woman some bananas we've brought for a snack, but I can see by the look on her face that she is unhappy. I can tell by the way her small frame is so thinly covered with flesh that she is poor. I take a crumpled dong from my bag and thank her for allowing me to take her photograph. The currency is worth less than a few cents, but it is enough.

Our battered sails are cunningly crafted from handmade cotton and silk thread, then dipped in a waterproofing concoction made from a local plant, a root-like member of the beet family. The stained tarp is pulled tight and high, but the wind is stingy. It holds its breath. The location is stunning, surreal, and yet forlorn. On the surface of the azure water a discarded pack of playing cards drifts, the Joker's face leering at the blue of the sky. The tattered remains of a conical hat woven from a palm leaf floats nearby and under the sea's surface a jellyfish the size of a beach ball, slogs aimlessly, white and visceral. The flotilla of debris passes over the scummy invertebrate like a luckless omen.

Copyright: Victoria Brooks.

The sun shimmers, the old mast yaws and the two boatmen we have hired for our day's outing converse in monotones. Unhappily, we don't speak Vietnamese. Their language is unintelligible to us, as ours is to them. In Saigon and other parts of what was South Vietnam before the 1975 reunification under Ho Chi Minh's communism, English was widely spoken, as well as Vietnamese and French. English is still well understood in the south by those old enough to remember the Vietnam War and by the many entrepreneurs of all ages who tend to congregate there. But now we are in the north with its cooler climate and stricter adherence to communist social laws. As far as the language is concerned, even if we'd picked up enough Vietnamese in Saigon to get by, the dialects of north and south are so different that those in the north don't understand those in the south and vise-versa. The people of the north and the south are as different as their climates. The south is humid and hot year-round. The north has a cold winter.A young onlooker smiles and sways. Copyright: Victoria Brooks. I wave to a small boy swaying in a miniature hammock strung with twine and he rewards me with the shyest and sweetest of smiles. His makeshift bed rocks gently in the tiny open-air sleeping deck. The sleeping area he plays in measures 5 feet by 3 feet. It amazes me that this tiny space will have to sleep three. I wonder stupidly if this is why the Vietnamese are so tiny – so they can fit in cramped spaces?

The resort town of boxy low-rise buildings stands on the distant shore. I recently slept in a hotel there, suite 208 where Deneuve made-up, rested and slumbered while she filmed here in 1992. The memory clings to me like sleep in the corner of a child's eye. Across the short expanse of water our old craft has covered, I can make out the building we will return to after the sun sets on the bay. The suite the building hides within its simple walls is as spacious as a small apartment and on the second floor of what is called simply Halong 1 Hotel. Built by the French in 1930 as a hospital, it is surrounded by a glut of low-rise holiday accommodation. Most were constructed in the seventies with Russian funds as mini-hotels and holiday retreats for North Vietnam’s communist rulers. Consequently, the town smacks of the old Soviet regime. I am reminded of the square, concrete, featureless buildings that skirt Hanoi and the huge buses that move like lumbering metal dinosaurs crowding the older and more gentle (to some inhumane) mode of transportation the cyclo, a three-wheeled pedicab powered by a Vietnamese on a bicycle. Everywhere in North Vietnam, including the tiny town that was built to service visitors to Halong Bay, there are tangible remnants of Soviet influence as well as the visually beautiful French Colonial period, with its elegant architecture and memories of a different world.

The sheer cliff faces of Halong Bay loom dramatically from the water. Copyright: Victoria Brooks.Our suite has been indelibly touched by Deneuve's now far-off presence. There are photos of the lovely actress on the set and relaxing on the length of private balcony. Lacquered furniture carved with dragons and snakes was brought in at her request and thankfully it remains, as does a kitschy laughing Buddha that sits on the TV console beside an empty fridge bar.

I think about the movie Indochine and the last dramatic scene where the lovely Deneuve and her lover escape on a wooden junk and hide in the maze of these otherworldly waters. It would be easy to lose your bearings amidst the dizzying swirl of islets that infuse the still bright sea. Our modern and practical guidebook has warned that there have been "incidents." These so-called incidents are referred to sketchily, but suggest that being taken out to a lonely stretch of water, robbed by sea gypsies and then left on an uninhabited karst island is not a singular occurrence. I trail my hand through the calm water wondering if we may need to swim. The water is chilly and the air temperature is around 50 degrees Fahrenheit.The weather on Halong Bay can be surprisingly cold. Copright: Victoria Brooks.The wind has become animated and the shore and the boats that greet us and then cling to our vessel are now disappearing like a fadeout in a film. Ahead is one of the most exquisite scenes in Vietnam, maybe the entire universe. The monoliths rise like apparitions in the distance – 1,500 square kilometers of karst topography studded with over 3,000 limestone and dolomite islets. I gaze at them as the sun slips away. Darkness descends. In the distance I see fishermen shining lights into the water to attract squid and then, as the wind raises the ante and with it our speed, nothing but a labyrinth of metallic sea and the now ever present monoliths. They crowd around us, encroaching and looming like monstrous brooding ghosts clothed in pitch black. We pass by and around so many I become confused. There is no shore anymore. There is no north, south, east, or west. No point of orientation. I am suddenly afraid and want to return to what I will call home for one more night, to suite 208 – to the warm kitschy room where Catherine Deneuve slept and where a bottle of French wine awaits and with it the reassuring bygone elegance of a hand-carved chair and the sweep of marble balcony out the double doors.

Local traffic. Copyright: Victoria Brooks.I am as silent as the night. Yesterday seems a world away, but it was only then that we'd made the three-hour drive from Hanoi after wandering the war museum with its brave and sad photos, and its distressing relics of destruction. I recall, too, the drive down Highway 1. The busy thoroughfare leaves Hanoi and plows like a tractor through industrial sites and such terrible pollution it is difficult to breathe. Then the oppression is exchanged for the fresh smell of mud and the splendor of the rice fields, a green and wet natural equation that ripples like the waves in the nearby bay. Egrets perch on brown oxen driven by northern masters whose heads are capped with pale rabbit fur. I finger the hand-sewn place mats we'd so recently purchased from the handicraft shop that is tucked by a bend of Highway 1. The stitching is large and imprecise, as if it is a child's work. I had slipped the mats in my bag along with a sweater I later donned to keep out the damp and the cold on Halong Bay. The craft workers at the handicraft cooperative were seated in rows and worked as well as possible. Some stitched with one hand; some sewed on machines they pedaled with their foot. A good many of them were blind. They were adults, young and old and all victims of Agent Orange, the defoliant sprayed over the landscape during the Vietnam War. It has affected the last two generations and its powerful legacy lives on.

Back home I've had time to reflect and I know now why my paranoia had set in. There was nothing disturbing about sailing on Halong Bay. Our boatmen knew the waters and would take us safely to shore. The sea gypsies were not quick to smile like their southern cousins, but they have cold as well as poverty to battle. It was the emotional backlash from the black- and-white photographs of the soldier's young faces in the war museums and the living victims of Agent Orange at the handicraft co-op that affected my spirits. It was the specter of a war that ended 25 years ago that haunted me. These are the silent dark fingers of Halong Bay that still claw at my psyche. A playful boy apes for the camera. Copyright: Victoria Brooks. When You Go:

In 1994 stunning and bizarre Halong Bay was named a World Heritage Site. The best time to visit is mid-March to mid-November when you can go swimming, caving and diving. The rest of the year is cool to cold and drizzly with fog and rain obscuring the karst formations. Halong Bay is a 165-km road journey from Hanoi. Tour agencies and traveler's cafes in Hanoi will book one- to three-day tours for 5 to 20 people that include transportation by minibus, basic food and cheap accommodation, but not the boat ride. Cost is US$20 to $40 a person for a two-day trip. We paid US$25 per hour to rent the boat for our excursion and drove ourselves in a rental car. If you are not confidant tackling the difficult road, your hotel will book you a car with driver. To book Catherine Deneuve's suite in Halong 1 Hotel, call 846320 or fax 846318 or request your hotel to call and reserve. Deneuve's suite cost $160 - 220 per night, depending on the season. Request room 208.

Fanatic climbers as well as spelunkers are discovering the grottoes, sheer limestone towers and overhanging stalactites that make up these mostly uninhabited karst islets. Keep in mind that they are pristine and some conservationists allege the formations could be disfigured by contact with climbers.

Sunset on Halong Bay. Copyright: Victoria Brooks.

A young onlooker smiles and sways. Copyright: Victoria Brooks. I wave to a small boy swaying in a miniature hammock strung with twine and he rewards me with the shyest and sweetest of smiles. His makeshift bed rocks gently in the tiny open-air sleeping deck. The sleeping area he plays in measures 5 feet by 3 feet. It amazes me that this tiny space will have to sleep three. I wonder stupidly if this is why the Vietnamese are so tiny – so they can fit in cramped spaces?

The resort town of boxy low-rise buildings stands on the distant shore. I recently slept in a hotel there, suite 208 where Deneuve made-up, rested and slumbered while she filmed here in 1992. The memory clings to me like sleep in the corner of a child's eye. Across the short expanse of water our old craft has covered, I can make out the building we will return to after the sun sets on the bay. The suite the building hides within its simple walls is as spacious as a small apartment and on the second floor of what is called simply Halong 1 Hotel. Built by the French in 1930 as a hospital, it is surrounded by a glut of low-rise holiday accommodation. Most were constructed in the seventies with Russian funds as mini-hotels and holiday retreats for North Vietnam’s communist rulers. Consequently, the town smacks of the old Soviet regime. I am reminded of the square, concrete, featureless buildings that skirt Hanoi and the huge buses that move like lumbering metal dinosaurs crowding the older and more gentle (to some inhumane) mode of transportation the cyclo, a three-wheeled pedicab powered by a Vietnamese on a bicycle. Everywhere in North Vietnam, including the tiny town that was built to service visitors to Halong Bay, there are tangible remnants of Soviet influence as well as the visually beautiful French Colonial period, with its elegant architecture and memories of a different world.

The sheer cliff faces of Halong Bay loom dramatically from the water. Copyright: Victoria Brooks.Our suite has been indelibly touched by Deneuve's now far-off presence. There are photos of the lovely actress on the set and relaxing on the length of private balcony. Lacquered furniture carved with dragons and snakes was brought in at her request and thankfully it remains, as does a kitschy laughing Buddha that sits on the TV console beside an empty fridge bar.

I think about the movie Indochine and the last dramatic scene where the lovely Deneuve and her lover escape on a wooden junk and hide in the maze of these otherworldly waters. It would be easy to lose your bearings amidst the dizzying swirl of islets that infuse the still bright sea. Our modern and practical guidebook has warned that there have been "incidents." These so-called incidents are referred to sketchily, but suggest that being taken out to a lonely stretch of water, robbed by sea gypsies and then left on an uninhabited karst island is not a singular occurrence. I trail my hand through the calm water wondering if we may need to swim. The water is chilly and the air temperature is around 50 degrees Fahrenheit.The weather on Halong Bay can be surprisingly cold. Copright: Victoria Brooks.The wind has become animated and the shore and the boats that greet us and then cling to our vessel are now disappearing like a fadeout in a film. Ahead is one of the most exquisite scenes in Vietnam, maybe the entire universe. The monoliths rise like apparitions in the distance – 1,500 square kilometers of karst topography studded with over 3,000 limestone and dolomite islets. I gaze at them as the sun slips away. Darkness descends. In the distance I see fishermen shining lights into the water to attract squid and then, as the wind raises the ante and with it our speed, nothing but a labyrinth of metallic sea and the now ever present monoliths. They crowd around us, encroaching and looming like monstrous brooding ghosts clothed in pitch black. We pass by and around so many I become confused. There is no shore anymore. There is no north, south, east, or west. No point of orientation. I am suddenly afraid and want to return to what I will call home for one more night, to suite 208 – to the warm kitschy room where Catherine Deneuve slept and where a bottle of French wine awaits and with it the reassuring bygone elegance of a hand-carved chair and the sweep of marble balcony out the double doors.

Local traffic. Copyright: Victoria Brooks.I am as silent as the night. Yesterday seems a world away, but it was only then that we'd made the three-hour drive from Hanoi after wandering the war museum with its brave and sad photos, and its distressing relics of destruction. I recall, too, the drive down Highway 1. The busy thoroughfare leaves Hanoi and plows like a tractor through industrial sites and such terrible pollution it is difficult to breathe. Then the oppression is exchanged for the fresh smell of mud and the splendor of the rice fields, a green and wet natural equation that ripples like the waves in the nearby bay. Egrets perch on brown oxen driven by northern masters whose heads are capped with pale rabbit fur. I finger the hand-sewn place mats we'd so recently purchased from the handicraft shop that is tucked by a bend of Highway 1. The stitching is large and imprecise, as if it is a child's work. I had slipped the mats in my bag along with a sweater I later donned to keep out the damp and the cold on Halong Bay. The craft workers at the handicraft cooperative were seated in rows and worked as well as possible. Some stitched with one hand; some sewed on machines they pedaled with their foot. A good many of them were blind. They were adults, young and old and all victims of Agent Orange, the defoliant sprayed over the landscape during the Vietnam War. It has affected the last two generations and its powerful legacy lives on.

Back home I've had time to reflect and I know now why my paranoia had set in. There was nothing disturbing about sailing on Halong Bay. Our boatmen knew the waters and would take us safely to shore. The sea gypsies were not quick to smile like their southern cousins, but they have cold as well as poverty to battle. It was the emotional backlash from the black- and-white photographs of the soldier's young faces in the war museums and the living victims of Agent Orange at the handicraft co-op that affected my spirits. It was the specter of a war that ended 25 years ago that haunted me. These are the silent dark fingers of Halong Bay that still claw at my psyche. A playful boy apes for the camera. Copyright: Victoria Brooks. When You Go:

In 1994 stunning and bizarre Halong Bay was named a World Heritage Site. The best time to visit is mid-March to mid-November when you can go swimming, caving and diving. The rest of the year is cool to cold and drizzly with fog and rain obscuring the karst formations. Halong Bay is a 165-km road journey from Hanoi. Tour agencies and traveler's cafes in Hanoi will book one- to three-day tours for 5 to 20 people that include transportation by minibus, basic food and cheap accommodation, but not the boat ride. Cost is US$20 to $40 a person for a two-day trip. We paid US$25 per hour to rent the boat for our excursion and drove ourselves in a rental car. If you are not confidant tackling the difficult road, your hotel will book you a car with driver. To book Catherine Deneuve's suite in Halong 1 Hotel, call 846320 or fax 846318 or request your hotel to call and reserve. Deneuve's suite cost $160 - 220 per night, depending on the season. Request room 208.

Fanatic climbers as well as spelunkers are discovering the grottoes, sheer limestone towers and overhanging stalactites that make up these mostly uninhabited karst islets. Keep in mind that they are pristine and some conservationists allege the formations could be disfigured by contact with climbers.

Sunset on Halong Bay. Copyright: Victoria Brooks.