Saturday, July 21, 2007

Down by the Ha Long Bay

Welcome Ha Long Bay, one of Vietnam's World Heritage Sites. It is a large natural bay that opens onto the Gulf of Tonkin, and is filled with hundreds of little limestone pillars and islets. The landscape alone is amazing and when the culture, geology and biology of the bay is considered, it's utterly breathtaking. The name in Vietnamese means "Descending Dragon" Bay. A variety of legends explain the name and all of them in some way involve a dragon (or several) that dashed off into the sea tearing up the land an even digging the bay itself out of the gulf. Whatever did happen, the result is unlike anything anywhere else on earth. We spent the last day of our week-long working retreat out on the water. We rented one of the massive fleet of tourist junks and spent a glorious day out on the sunsoaked bay (we also completely lucked-out on weather - it's rarely that good!). We made a couple of excursions into the limestone caves which were almost all brimming with other tourists. The amazing thing (for me) was the nationality of the tourists we joined. I would say they were 20% Chinese and Japanese, 5% European/American/Other, and the remaining three-quarters of them were Vietnamese! I am impressed not only that the Vietnamese can afford to take vacations like this, but that they actually know about and appreciate their history and culture and want to come and see the places they've learned about. In addition to the caves, another highlight of the day was stopping at one of the numerous floating communities with whole families that live right out on the water, raising and catching fish and seafood to sell to passing tourist boats and for the market on the mainland. Floating homes are lashed together in 2s and 3s with boardwalks floating on tires connecting them. Children and dogs alike gallop recklessly down the floating paths between underwater fishnets, hoping like water-walking mountain goats between the walkways and hand-woven, tar-sealed basket rowboats. These rowboats and the most common transportation between the flotilla and shore and other miniature communities. We bought a huge fish for lunch from one of the floating fishmongers, then headed off on a cruise to see the famous sites including Cat Ba island, the "kissing" rocks, and several famous islets with temples at the very peaks. We gorged ourselves on the Vietnamese-style seafood lunch cooked on board for us by the captain's son. In the afternoon we moored at an islet with a beautiful sandy beach and quiet waters. I spent several happy splashy hours introducing the staff to the art of kayaking. At first they were all too scared to try, but I lured one into the boat and after a few rotations I had lost my own place as everybody else started fighting over the remaining seats. By that time I was soaked, so when the admin/fin coordinator snuck up and splashed me on shore, I didn't think twice of turning and dashing right in after her, fully clothed. So, I spent the rest of that warm afternoon washing my capris and tanktop in warm saltwater. None of us were any worse for the wear at the end of the day.

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