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Vietnam at bay

Updated: 2011-11-13 11:13
By Dusty Lane ( China Daily)

Vietnam at bay

Hundreds of craggy green islands blanketing the seascape of Ha Long Bay. Photos by Dusty Lane / China Daily

Vietnam at bay

The fishing villages float on the water and puppies have fun on the sandy beach.

For American tourists with memories of wartime, Ha Long Bay seems like a fairy tale, Dusty Lane discovers.

It's difficult to write about Ha Long Bay without sounding like a glossy brochure.

It's pristine, it's unique, it's photogenic, it's relaxing. It's a hell of a lot of fun.

Hundreds of craggy green islands blanketing the seascape that's the backdrop for your 10-course fresh-seafood meal - that's a good holiday, right?

My wife, Kelsie, and I spent five nights in Vietnam in the middle of October.

Vietnam is not on the list of places I planned to visit in this lifetime.

We are Americans. There's some uncomfortable history. A Vietnam story should star Sylvester Stallone, not Julia Roberts. POW camps, grown-over bomb craters and monsoons seemed about right.

Romance and wine? Sandy beaches overrun with frolicking puppies?

Some light kayaking?

The most beautiful place you've never heard of

Ha Long Bay is about 165 km east of Hanoi.

It is home to 2,000 islands, several floating fishing villages, worlds of stunning scenery, and a fair number of cruise companies.

Someday soon, the inevitable movie producer will stumble across it, and the inevitable hordes will descend and consume what is still a relatively raw area.

Maybe I shouldn't even be writing this, come to think of it.

A mini-bus picked us up in front of our hotel at 8 am on a Saturday morning for a four-hour bus ride in the northern Vietnamese countryside - rice paddies, rivers, endless strings of French-inspired villages. A quick break for some peanut M&Ms and a toilet was a respite from the legitimately terrifying traffic (and the occasional water buffalo crossing the road).

Still alive by some miracle of Vietnamese highway magic, we boarded our junk at noon. The first order of business would become the most frequent order of business: Food. Lots of food.

A nine-course seafood lunch occupied us as we cut out toward our first stop of the day. Clams, oyster, crab, fish: If it can swim and die, there's a good chance it found its way to our table.

On the bus, a guide had asked if anybody had special food requests.

"No onions!" I said, feeling like the most annoying kind of tourist.

I am, in fact, the most annoying kind of tourist, but I did get specially prepared food, and sometimes double portions, at every meal.

Our guide mentioned the company we chose, Red Dragon Junk, goes a bit off the beaten path, choosing a route that circles the northern part of the bay.

By mid-afternoon, we arrived at a small island with a few hundred yards of sandy beach.

We took a quick tour of some caves while the know-it-alls among us debated which were the stalactites and which the stalagmites. (Answer: in this context, it doesn't matter, and if you're the guy trying to prove how smart he is, your tour group hates you.)

Finally they set us loose on the beach with an hour of free time that could've been a month-long vacation in itself.

We chose kayaking and puppies.

My wife and I lived in the Pacific Northwest of the US for most of our lives, and still somehow never got within 100 yards of a kayak.

When we return to the Pacific Northwest someday, kayak shopping will be on the to-do list.

After 45 minutes on the water, and the expected oohs, aahs, splashes and vows to do something about our level of physical fitness, we made a beeline for the litters of puppies on the beach.

Depressing puppies, and the human zoo

After a few minutes, we were faced with the first of two uncomfortable realities on the trip.

If there are two large litters of puppies on that tiny island, and only a handful of adults ... where did all the puppies from previous litters go? It's not like you can take ad out in the local paper giving away free puppies. There had to be more puppies, and they had to go somewhere, right?

Best just to get some puppy kisses, go back to the boat and try never to think about it again.

We were given a few minutes back at the junk to work up the nerve to jump off it and go swimming.

Dinner brought us face-to-face with a problem we'd avoided talking about all day.

Life may be free aboard the Dragon Pearl, but wine is not. And we had 10 courses to wash down.

It's what they call a First World Problem.

Lucky for us, we'd befriended a fellow cruiser who foresaw the problem and brought his own solution. Four bottles later, the three of us were enjoying the stars on the top deck, the impending 7 am wake-up call all but forgotten.

The call didn't forget us, and we stumbled to breakfast for coffee and eggs. On the way back to port, for the trip's final attraction, we would be stopping at a fishing village. The women of the village would paddle us around for an hour in the morning sun. We were free to tip.

This was the second of those uncomfortable realities.

When you are in the front of a boat and an incredibly poor woman is in back rowing in hopes of a $5 tip, you spend a lot more time thinking about that woman than you do the world-class scenery.

The fishing villages are spread around the edges of the bay. They're rows of floating houses lashed together with little docks out front.

The men go out fishing, and trade the fish for other necessities. The women, in recent years, have added to their duties the paddling around of overweight tourists with digital cameras, snapping pictures of their ramshackle floating houses.

Is this good for the village? They've used the money to buy food, as well as generators, TVs and other modern goodies.

On the other hand, their quiet lives now feature constant intrusion by the likes of you.

It's a zoo, with humans as the exhibits.

For a solid hour, as you try to enjoy some of the most spectacular scenery the world has to offer, you're trapped with the realization that you're absolutely the most annoying kind of tourist.

Just go ahead and put in that special dietary request ahead of time.

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