I mentioned a day or two ago that we had visited the town of Bat Trang (not be confused with “batarang” which is that thing that Batman throws that always comes back to him). Like Tho Ha, it is a single-industry town, an economic monoculture built in this case on ceramics instead of rice paper. There is apparently a lot more money in the former than the latter: Bat Trang looks a lot more prosperous than Tho Ha, with wide streets and mostly non-decrepit buildings. No surprise there; rice paper is strictly a high-volume, low-profit commodity serving a local market, while ceramics attract tourists. Store advertise that they will ship, although you can always take the more adventurous “giant vases on motorcycle” approach like this guy.
We visited one studio and were given a lesson on the process, no different than you might find in a ceramics art class anywhere. The big finish was sitting us down at hand-turned potters’ wheels to try our hands at making a bowl. One of our group was a ringer with some actual experience, who made quite a nice one, unlike my own, which resembled a large asymmetric ashtray. (And, uncharacteristically, even my off-kilter effort yielded a better result than Alice’s, which underwent gravitational collapse and ended up as some kind of unrecognizable alien artifact.
Our final visit in Hanoi was to a couple who, once upon a time, had owned 10 houses, all confiscated by the Communists under the aegis of so-called land reform. We were there mostly to admire their house – they had gotten one back – and to hear their tale of woe (which was quite genuine). We heard the family history and liked them a lot; they were charming people who had gone through some hard times when their country changed around them, and their lined and expressive faces told their story.
So we left Hanoi yesterday morning, making two stops en route to famously scenic Ha Long Bay: a small (nonmilitary) graveyard in the middle of an large otherwise empty field, and a large roadside craft store — the Humanity Center — that employees young handicapped people who otherwise have difficulty making a living.
The cemetery was an oddity to our eyes, located as it was in an empty expanse immediately adjacent to a highway and a rice field. Turns out there’s a good reason for this, namely that land is scarce. So you end up with a sleazy entrepreneurial cohort of what you might call “grave squatters”, analogous to Internet domain squatters: they buy grave-sized plots of land in areas where cemeteries are or will be sited and then gouge you for the price of plot if you want to be buried next to Uncle Trang. I guess you might also call it “plot scalping”. Thing is, feng shui is a very big deal here, so it might be very important indeed for you to be buried next to old Trang, or at least be facing in the right direction. So you’re gonna pay. I confess that I have a hard time personally relating to this particular problem, but hey, this is why we travel.
So after three or four hours of travel we finally arrived in Ha Long, which over the past several years has started developing into a major tourist destination. And for good reason: the bay is stunning, dotted with nearly 2000 craggy, forested limestone islands. It’s an ensemble of postcard views, and I guarantee you that you have seen it a number of times in movies, including the 1994 classic Indochine and one or two James Bond films. It’s pretty much the archetypal view of Vietnam.
We overnighted on what is billed as a traditional junk, which is a pretty big stretch. The Halong Secret is a metal vessel, not wood, though it sports the traditional scalloped sail of a real junk. It’s got about a dozen comfortable, compact staterooms, each with a full bath and an air conditioning unit. So, not exactly an ancient traditional vessel. It has a lot of company; the bay is filled with dozens of its cousins, particularly around sunset, all filled with tourists like us, ogling the spectacular view. The Secret was far from the largest such boat.
We motored among the limestone karst islands, soaking up the view, en route to the Sung Sot (“Surprising”) grotto, a limestone cave reachable by some 200 stairs, about halfway up the side of one of the islands. The ship’s tender brought us to shore and we made the sweaty trek up the stairs to the cave. It was enjoyable enough, not being greatly different from any other big cave (e.g., Luray Caverns in Virginia, the largest on the East Coast of the US), with spookily lit stalactites and such. It differed from those primarily in being high up on a cliffside rather than deep underground, which in turn meant that the interior was no less hot and humid than the surrounding bay. We’ve been in a fair number of caves; this is the only one that left us soaked in sweat.
Oh yeah… one other respect in which Sung Sot differs from most other caves is that, e.g., Luray was not used by the Viet Cong to store ammunition.
The tender ride from the beach back to the Secret was at about 5:30 PM, getting on towards sunset. The Secret raised its vestigial pseudo-junk sails to create a wonderful photo op as we approached, so here she is in her glory (and yes, this is a real photo).
Back on board, we congregated for a sunset happy hour.
By this time, no less than 30 other tour boats had congregated to admire the view; piloting those boats must be a nightmare with all this traffic. Everyone seemed to lay anchor here for the night.
I slept particularly well, Alice less so, no doubt because of the cinderblock softness of the bed, or possibly a pea under her side of the mattress. But we got up early enough to watch the sunrise, as well as an early-morning top deck Tai Chi session conducted by one of the crew members and attended by four women from our group.
This morning we (and 30 other tour boats) motored back to Hal Long city itself to begin the next leg of our trip. I am typing this from Hanoi airport, waiting for our flight to Hue, the historical capital. So I expect that I will be reporting from there in a day or two.