Magnificent Ha Long Bay battles to keep economy afloat (Letter from Ha Long Bay)

June 9th, 2008 - 12:54 pm ICT by IANS  

By Madhusree Chatterjee
Ha Long Bay (Vietnam), June 9 (IANS) A heavy mist hangs over the Vietnam coast as the luxury liner Superstar Virgo wedges its way through a maze of nearly 3,000 rocky outcrops, mostly limestone hills corroded by the salty water at Ha Long Bay, a Unesco world heritage site. At times, the rocky islets in the emerald waters of the South China Sea seem too close for comfort but the captain and his crew at the Bridge - the automated mariner’s deck - know their lanes.

Located in northeast Vietnam, 165 km from Hanoi, the limestone islands appear soggy and dank, whipped by weeks of incessant rain. Ha Long Bay is known for its limestone caves. Like magicians’ lairs, they shimmer with the crystalline light of the refracted sun passing through the mesh of stalactites and stalagmites.

Four of the biggest fishing islands are home to over 1,000 families. Locals call the islands, Cura Van, Ba Hang, Cong Tau and Von Vieng, the floating villages of Ha Long. The islands cling to tourism for life.

The daily throng of visitors disgorged by Superstar Virgo and the passing liners keeps the fragile economy of fishing and local craftsmanship afloat. The artisans weave straw knickknacks and carve souvenirs from wood.

The local currency dong fares poorly against the dollar from Hong Kong, the yuan from China and the greenback from the US. The islanders remember the 30-year war with America — a hazy nightmare of bombers that carpeted the forest with fire, sudden landings off the coast and the burst of gunfire echoing off the silent sea.

“It is past. We do not want to look back,” says 70-year-old Wang, a fisherman on one of the islands, who hitches his wooden dhow along the cruiser showing off his catch of shrimp, crabs, shells and scuttle fish. For Wang, one US dollar means 16,000 dongs.

“The beachfront is our mall,” says 24-year-old Nguyin Phuang Thanh, a petite girl at the local office of the French island cruise Emeraude, which has been running a double-deck luxury ferry across the islands since 1910 when the region was known as French IndoChina.

“Emeraude has a rich history. It was part of a flotilla owned by the moneyed Roque family of Bordeaux. The family left Bordeaux, an area in France known for its vintage wines and high quality grapes, in 1858 in search of adventure and fortune. Over 50 years, the family found both by trading in timber, seafood and local spices,” says Thanh.

The area is rich in legends too, which say the islands, once the site of violent wars between the Vietnamese and the Chinese invaders, are the children of the dragon lord Ha Long and his wife, a local goddess.

Once, when it was a colonial settlement, pirates stalked the treacherous waters off the rocky islets. They were mostly local Vietnamese, aided by professional mercenaries from France, Holland, the Indies (Caribbean) and the African colonies who robbed the rich trade flotillas of the British empire carrying gemstones, silk, ivory and porcelain from the Orient.

Today shacks and hotels dot the hilly harbour, the main port area of Ha Long. The town, winding uphill from the beach, which is a shallow stretch of sand, comprises a cluster of eateries, hardware shops and working class homes hemmed in together in an untidy heap of clotheslines and matchbox balconies.

The neighbourhood is strangely quiet. Not much happens during the afternoon when the local men banter over beer, boiled clams and local bread, and the women beaver away quietly indoors. Town residents say women are the industrious lot and contribute to more than 50 percent of the household incomes.

The local markets at Hong Gai and Bai Chay seem full of sloth. Business mostly in dried seafood, straw hats, mats and woodcraft is a trickle. The government has left Ha Long to fend for itself.

“We are a religious lot like the Indians,” smiles Thnah with pride. Ha Long has two shrines, the Cua Ong temple, where the villagers pray for happiness on the first lunar month of the year, and the Yen Tu, a pagoda, which awe visitors with its old world beauty. The islands are also a popular shooting locale.

The water off the bay is lively. Boats cluster like flies around the two liners anchored off the harbour, ferrying people to the land. The handcrafted wooden boats are smart; done up with lace curtains, tables, chintz, bone china and ornamented panels. They are oriental in design.

“I wish I could stay here for some more days,” says Niranjan Singh, an investment banker from India as he steps off the ferry to board the ship.

It is past lunchtime when Wang, the fisherman from Von Vieng village, decides to call it a day. “I have to go back home to my village,” he says indicating the picnic on his narrow fishing boat is over.

Wang’s scuttle fish curry is interesting, but the oil reeks of stale flesh. “My wife extracted it from the cod fish I caught last week,” he explains with an impish smile. And he promises a fiery curry of crabs next time.

Aboard Superstar Virgo, liveried chefs run around the upper decks laying the tables. The buffet with its Mediterranean delights, French rolls and breads is beyond anything Wang can imagine. The fisherman heads off towards his islands — a lonely figure in a bobbing boat.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at

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