Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site, honoured as such, perhaps because of it's natural outstanding beauty. I am somewhat unclear on the true reason, because on our arrival we were lucky if we could see the other end of the ship, such was the dense fog between us and all of that natural beauty! We had anchored again, 5 minutes ride from shore and were tendered to a floating pontoon which itself was attached (in the loosest possible way) to Terra firma. Some places we have docked, lay on a grand welcome ceremony, sometimes music is being played, and often there are stalls selling local souvenirs, but setting foot onto Vietnamese soil we were greeted by a red piece of AstroTurf, a nice touch, and a few quizzical locals who appeared to find more interesting happenings on their finger nails. It only occurred to me as I sat down to write this, that the reason for this may have been that they could not actually see the huge ship anchored 5 minutes out into the bay. All the locals saw appearing from out of the mist was a small orange boat carrying 100 people wearing T-shirts proclaiming to have come from Hawaii, Aruba or Australia. In fact, I don't doubt that many of those logo'd T-shirts were actually coming back home!
Of course, please don't mis-understand me. I don't expect to be welcomed with song and dance, in fact sometimes it can be quite false and uncomfortable, but this welcome was such an amusing contrast to other places, that I thought I would mention it.
A large number of people were understandably heading on an organised trip to Hanoi, about 3 hours drive each way, but with the limited time we had here, we decided that 6 hours on a coach was not the right thing to do, and had opted to see some of the Vietnamese countryside instead. We were driven about an hour from the bay to visit a local pottery/ceramics factory, then visited the house of a local farmer and finally a Buddhist monastery in the hills. The stops were nice, informative and a great way to get a feel for the people and their way of life in this part of the country, but it was the travel between places that really opened our eyes and filled in the gaps between the polished, organised events. While I'm not really in a position to be passing political comment or making judgements, we were very aware of Vietnam's communist governance, and the possible impact this would have on what we saw and heard. The same was true in Hong Kong, when we were given a long and passionate address by the tour guide. He bestowed the benefits of being a part of China, and how the government had helped to bring about great change. It was a strange, and overly opinionated view for a tour guide to make public, usually they stick to the facts. Back to Vietnam, Katie had a chat with our guide whilst on the bus, and she too expressed a passion for her country and the way it was run. I'm happy if the views of these guides reflect those of the country at large, but the cynic inside of me still filtered it all first.
Instead of appearing like a patronising westerner who thinks everything in his or her own country to be best, I'll simply report what we saw instead of passing comment (at least for the next paragraph!) I think that part of the reason for my cynicism was because of what we saw through the windows of the coach. The road along which we travelled before we got into more rural areas, was almost entirely made up of poorly maintained concrete houses and shops, solid on 3 sides with an opening onto the road. They would continue for several miles before being interspersed with a few paddy fields (presumably as one town stopped and another started) and each paddy field would normally have people (usually women) bent over, tending to the crop. Litter was either lying at the side of the road, or had been collected or bagged up and placed in huge piles in front of these houses. Even as we passed over bridges, you could see the rubbish on the banks of the river below. The built up area ran purely alongside the road, that's to say it didn't go any further back than one house or shop and a large proportion of them were either selling fruit and vegetables or fixing motorbikes. Not surprisingly, bikes and motorbikes were the main form of transport. Most people, we were told, got a motorbike when they were old enough to ride it, if you were rich you might own 2 or 3. If you didn't have enough road sense to own a bike then you owned a car. With the exception of a few stretches which were 3 lanes wide, the roads were single carriageway, generally in good condition. I lost count of the number of times that I heard the sound of air being sucked through the teeth of the passengers at the front of the coach as they surveyed the road ahead. The horn was used copiously, and we worked out a rough system of 1 beep to say I'm overtaking you, 2 beeps when you were roughly alongside, and 1 again to announce that you were pulling back in, regardless of whether you were completely passed or not. If we were head-on with another vehicle coming the other way (which wasn't uncommon) a flash of your lights appeared to be the acceptable method of telling the other party that you intended to have priority and that the other should back down. For the party who was backing down, this was the time to use a single beep to indicate you were pulling in, regardless. Nevertheless, we didn't witness a single accident, and only a handful of near misses.
Once the joy ride was over and we were heading back towards the ship, we decided to get dropped off at what we were told to be a tourist market. In fact, as we discovered after the coach had pulled away, that it was really nothing to behold. We were a couple of miles from the "port" so we pointed in the right direction and with no more company than a main road on one side, and sea on the other, we took a stroll down a street in Vietnam. As you do. The bizarreness of it all wasn't lost on us and it wasn't for another 30 minutes or so that we saw anyone that might have passed as a tourist. Katie wouldn't miss the opportunity to touch The South China Sea either, but you wouldn't want to put your beach towel down. Unfortunately, it too was dirty and had rubbish scattered around. We witnessed people clearing it up, but we also witnessed a taxi driver throwing an empty drinks bottle out of his window and onto the pavement. You don't need rules and punishment to know that's not right, surely?
As we got closer to the ship, there was a large "night" market that was already open for business. It wasn't dissimilar to the type we had seen in Hong Kong, but most of the stalls sold very similar goods, and therefore most of the stall holders were a lot more pushy. We liked Hong Kong because we were left alone to browse, but here, much to our surprise and eventual amusement, the stall holders were more interested in the wicker bags we were already clutching from the ceramics factory. They wanted to know where we got them from, what they cost, and what was inside. The contents happen to be a present for someone, and a fragile one at that, so I was a little cautious of them manhandling it as they were.
Back at the tender embarkation point, we found that the fog had lifted a little, and we could make out more of the large atolls that poke up above the water, and give Halong Bay it's distinctive image. After the short tender, we headed straight for some food as we hadn't eaten all day save for some biscuits that Katie is stashing in my top drawer. As the sun went down, the ship stayed very still, and we discovered that the coaches from Hanoi had been delayed. Trevor and Jean were both on that trip so I rang their cabin and left a message to explain that the captain (actually we have a Commodore on board now - I'll write about that later) was charging them, per hour, for delaying our departure.
If it's possible to get a feeling for somewhere after visiting it for a single day then I'll say that we really enjoyed what we saw. It was very different to anywhere we've been yet on this trip, and I dare say anywhere we've been previous to this trip too. It's also made us reflect on the fact that we are very lucky to be seeing these places, but asking ourselves if we're really able to form an opinion about a country in which we've spent 8 hours. The obvious answer is no. We can like or dislike what we saw, but we're in no position to judge anything more than that. Imagine if you arrived by sea into Hull and presumed the whole of England was that bad :-)