Day 4: Halong Bay, Thien Canh Son Cave

While I wait for breakfast, I will use this opportunity to get some writing in. This morning we had a fun outing to paradise cave—the Vietnamese name means “heaven on the mountain.”

We climbed 80-100 stairs to reach the cave. I thought it would be more difficult, but it turns out that 100 stairs are not that many.

The cave itself was pretty, but I found it underwhelming. I feel like such a philistine saying that, but I must be honest.

It was beautiful to be sure. And I learned that it is an ancient formation created by slow water erosion of the limestone. It seems that the cave used to be submerged (and many still are), but as the earth's oceans dropped (I assume as polar ice caps formed) the caves became dry. So, I am sure a geologist would be horrified at my lack of awe as the cave is the result of massive geological changes over millions of years. I am indeed impressed by that aspect and as a piece of art, it was beautiful. But not as stunning as the name suggests.

I got up very early this morning, 5:15 AM, to see the sunrise. The clouds hid most of the rising, but the soft mist was beautiful in its own right. I took a lot of pictures, but am not hopeful that any will capture the gentle beauty of a morning on Halong Bay.

It is so tragic that pollution and tourism are disrupting the peaceful elegance of this gorgeous bay. I feel guilty for being here. It was amazing to see this natural wonder—but not amazing enough to justify what my presence, along with that of others is doing in this place.

The fishermen who live in these floating villages should not need to have tourists passing through their homes all the time. Maybe it is the American in me, but tourism through these villages should be prohibited. And the number of cruise ships significantly curtailed. Surely in a communist country that should be possible. That is one of the beliefs of communism, complete control to govern the populace like children and prevent the worst notions of capitalism. But it seems that no matter what form of government a country has, money will always rule. So sad—the communist party has a chance here to prove their worth. They could protect their country and its natural wonders, but they don’t. Corruption it seems infects every government.

It makes me so grateful to Teddy Roosevelt for establishing our national parks to preserve our natural wonders for generations of Americans to come.

On the boat, everyone is finishing up their breakfast now. We will be at port soon and I will be glad to move on to Sapa with Duc. This cruise has been a bit tiring as I am alone, American, and do not enjoy groups, therefore I am out of place and fear I am a burden to my hosts.

It is spring in the North, so the weather is not as hot as it could be (or may get so as I work my way South). But still, the heat and humidity are sticky. I don’t even feel overly hot, but then the sweat will trickle down my back and this sticky film of sweat cools my body.

The worst is when my hands swell from heat and dehydration. They feel tight and sticky and I hate it. I know—drink more water then! But I am afraid of not having access to a bathroom!

It rained this morning while I was out taking photos at sunrise. It was a gentle rain—little more than a mist and not cold at all. I was surprised by how warm it was. Like a shower, except with no water pressure.

I love seeing the birds fly around the islands. There was one white and black one I think. It flew in flocks around the rocks. When they got close, it almost looked like their white wings glowed. I also saw a few hawks, I think, or eagles. Definitely birds of prey. Beautiful!

I enjoyed looking at the local working boats too. I took a lot of pictures of them. I think commercial boats are the most beautiful. It doesn’t seem to matter the culture either. Their functional design is lovely. I hope some of my photos come out—though it would require a painter to do them justice.

The water is a beautiful green color here. I wonder if it will be affected by the pollution.

I have had ample opportunity to study people on this trip as well as nature. On the boat, there is the timid couple from Denmark, the struggling couple from Germany, the two large French groups (including the oblivious French family), and the gentle French couple.

The staff includes the shy waiter, the solicitous new guy with aspirations of being a guide, the overly bubbly guides—one in French the other in English—and the two invisible gentlemen. Also, we have the tender driver who is stern but capable and the captain who I think loves both his command and the boat.

On the beach, there was the giggling-in-love Aussies, the selfie-obsessed Americans, the couple where the girl was more loving than the man, and the Indian couple who were acting like it was a photo shoot.

At the cave, the kind young Aussie was helping the older one. The older Aussie was annoyed but capable. Oh! And I mustn’t forget the large outgoing Aussie in the bamboo boat when visiting the fishing village. The one who waved at us and then asked if we were having fun. I said “Yes! And you?” and he replied “Yes! Well the six of us. The rower isn’t.” I love people like that. Such a thoughtful sense of humor. Loud as they are, I find the Aussies delightful abroad. So cheery and competent. It’s refreshing.

Well, I had a lovely trip back to my hotel. It was about a 3-hour drive. I saw those narrow houses again—the ones painted bright colors in the front with concrete on either side left bare. This makes the front look like the binding of a book. Because these narrow/tall buildings are often standing alone or accompanied by one or two others, it looks like books on a shelf.

Something else I thought I should be more aware of. The colors of Vietnam. Color and texture help define a place. It is like the base coat of culture (music being the topcoat or finish and religion being the tint).

The main colors of Vietnam are of course red and gold. Red symbolizing on the flag the blood of the VC that lost their lives fighting to reunite Vietnam. But red is an auspicious color here at all times.

Something interesting as a side note, perhaps a little dark, but Vietnam is called the land of dragons. U.S. air force might be likened to dragons especially when carrying napalm.

Anyway back to color. Some beautiful pinks and purples make a regular appearance. And then of coarse green, the green of bananas and water rice.

The grey of the smog must be mentioned, but that is recent I think. Though the sheer grey of mist is frequently present as well and that is more ancient than the fog I think.

I asked Duc today what he thought the unique aspects of Vietnamese culture are. He took my question more literally than I expected, but he said:

1. The traditional dress of women represents the length of Vietnam and shows their beauty to the world.

2. The extensive collection of music is unique to Vietnam.

3. The water rice.

4. Their culinary history (fish sauce in particular).

I also found out that until the 1800s when the Portuguese arrived, they used ancient Chinese script that Duc refers to as Confucius.

The ethnic minorities still have no written language of their own. They go to school and learn Vietnamese, but their dialects are all oral.

I am curious as to how varied the ethnic traditions of the Vietnamese minorities are. I imagine that while there are similarities the cultures are quite varied.

Some of the textures of this culture are, of course; silk, mother of pearl, pearl, lacquer, bamboo, rice, water, jade, onyx, whatever the stuff is that’s in the food, fish, satin, banyan trees… that’s all I can think of right now.

Of course, the colors and textures of their ideal differ from reality somewhat (as does any culture).

The reality includes cement, red dirt turned over for construction, trash rotting under bridges, and colored shop signs advertising street wares. Much of what I’ve seen in Hanoi harkens back to 1984—including the communist slogans on the signs hung up around the towns. Creepy.

Oh! And I have a reason to never eat rice again! It is a fairly common practice to bury the dead in the rice fields. I have passed numerous headstones and mini graveyards situated right there in the middle of the rice fields. I know there isn’t anything wrong with that, but my gut says “ick.” I suppose it’s probably a great way, environmentally, to handle the dead though.

I have to say, it is pretty surreal to be here in Vietnam after all my research. Partly because I am in the country where I have devoted the last two years of my life trying to understand the war here. But mostly because I have spent so much time understanding the war in the ‘60s that seeing a modern Vietnam is surreal.

Some vets on returning have said it has matured into a vibrant country. From what I’ve seen so far, I’m not sure I would use the word “vibrant.” I don’t think I can go off of Hanoi alone, and I’m sure in comparison to 1965 Vietnam is more than vibrant, but something here is off. Nobody smiles. I remember that about Kuwait too! Why do I never see any smiling? There must be happy people in this city. I see children laugh and smile. Maybe it’s a cultural issue. They might be just more private and I interpret it as unhappiness—like what that woman did to me on the cruise ship. Culture can be so confusing. In many ways, people are so similar everywhere you go. But then customs and communication get so muddy.

I must say, I am looking forward to moving my way further South. I’ll be interested to see if perspectives change.

Something I’m curious about: do these people blindly trust their government and believe all they are taught from such a young age or do they question? Do they like communism or do they tolerate it?

I am having a hard time comprehending communism, much like Duc has trouble comprehending America. If we had won the war would Duc feel differently? Or would Vietnam be stuck in a state of division and civil unrest like North and South Korea? The answer to those questions doesn’t exist within the reach of men.

South Koreans seem happy with their freedom. They fought fiercely against communism during the Vietnam War as well. Perhaps the closest thing to an answer lies in Korea. Something I’ll have to think about.

I’ve read so much, and yet I feel no closer to a decision about how I feel about the war than I did before. Perhaps that’s the war—no answers, only confusion.

I guess the root question: Did the Vietnamese want communism? Yes or no. Was it about communism? Yes or no. Ugh. This isn’t helpful. Last page. My hand hurts so bad. And I’m falling asleep. But I achieved my goal! Nine pages. Not sure I’ll be able to keep this up all 16 days. But I’ll certainly try. Would be cool to fill up the whole book before I go home.

Well, I was going to be in bed by 8:00 and it is now 8:15. I have to get up early to head for Sepai. I’m so excited! I should prepare myself now that this is a tourist destination and will likely be crowded with other people.