Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Around Halong City

Written from Hon Gai (old, northern portion of Halong City), 2-26, 27, 28, 2012

I've been forgetting to start with an appropriate date line, my apologies.


The past three days here in Halong have been a mix of enforced idleness, interesting interviews, and frustrating periods of computer struggle. Well, that's a little strong, there's been some great city exploring and one full day's run through unfamiliar countryside. . .more about that in a minute.

This stop in Halong City was very much out of my normal mode of operation. I was here to meet with a certain Mr. Cuong, to whom I had an introduction via a certain David Brown, whom I've only met by email and to whom I'd had an introduction by. . .this could go on for a while. In short, a string of people connected only by the slimmest sort of thread (starting with my boat webpage me to call Mr. Cuong and ask for his help in my boat researches, to which, on the strength of his friendship with the last gentleman in the chain of introductions, he cheerfully agreed. It wasn't until he found himself chauffeuring me around Halong City to meet his friend and mentor Mr. Quy (the old traditional boat builder) that he thought to ask how I knew David. I had no choice but to admit I'd never met David at all. To his enormous credit, Cuong did not stop the motorbike and let me off, but kept on going. I began to explain and got about to the third layer of the onion and it all became clear to him. . .and we continued to Mr. Quy's. Mr. Cuong is as I now know, a career officer in the Civil Service locallhy and is presently working for the department of investment encouragement for the province. In the recent past he had a long run in the department of conservation (culture and the environment), and working for UNESCO, in a conservation role also. One of his major projects involved creating a floating museum of the bay out on the bay, and stocking it with, among other things, Mr. Quy's models. If you've never heard of Halong Bay before, try a web search, it's an amazing place, with its thousands of gorgeous limestone mountain islands, blue sea (er, well, gray sea when it's wintry as it is now). You wouldn't want to try gardening on the islands, but they're great for tourists to photograph, and provide a relatively sheltered environment for fishermen to work in.

So my big hope was to meet Mr. Quy, a fourteenth generation local boat builder. If you figure 20 years per generation, that's. . .er. . .a long time. Maybe I misunderstood and he's a 4th generation local boat builder. That's still impressive. He's 68 now, and a little frail (diabetes and high blood pressure, which must make us brothers or cousins, and he does have a beard). For the past several years has contented himself with building models. So I hoped to see a room full, or at least a few of them. . .but no. They're all gone, mostly to the Bay museum in the floating village out in the islands, but some to Japan, France and Korea to other museums and private owners. Since he had no models to photograph and he did have some photos to show me, I took pictures of pictures (note the elegant bedspread background surrounding each one. . . But I'm getting ahead of myself. I also can't figure out how to rotate this photo in Blogger. Twist your neck please.

First Mr. Cuong arranged an introduction for me to Mr. Doan Van Dung (say it “Dough-Awn—Vun--Zoong” and you'll be close). Mr. Dung is a second generation owner of a fleet of junks. His father left each of his six sons with enough to start a fleet and Mr. Dung at least has done exceedingly well in the business. He owns “Indochina Junk”, which is anything but junky. I don't know how many boats are in his fleet, but there are several, all of them top of the line for their size, very well built and superbly kept up. I crawled down into the engine room of one and you could eat off any surface down there. . .if you could squeeze in.

His captains wear WHITE UNIFORMS and look proud of them. Heck, the cooks and housekeepers and bar tenders wear neat uniforms on board and all speak English and all are definitely proud of their company and their boats. Mr. Dung speaks English, but employs Ms. Cuc (“Kook” is close) who has a university degree in English and also does shorthand in Vietnamese. . .so the conversation is precise. . .very different from my efforts at dog-Vietnamese and pantomime when I'm by myself! Delightful people and very helpful. Mr. Dung has set up a community based eco-tourism effort centered around one of the villages in the islands, where passengers on his 3-day cruises can even go out fishing with the locals, help haul in the nets, and eat dinner out of their catches. Unfortunately, his 3-day cruises are way out of my price range, so.. .oh well.

One of his boats is a modernized (to meet safety regulations) sort of traditional sailing boat. . .that actually sails! Most of the boats on the bay step a mast and carry a sail or two they can set for photos, but none of them are actually sailing vessels and some are outrageous.

The weather has been cold and gray and my photos show it, so Mr. Dung gave me the two photos of their boats in the islands, and I took some on board as well. More interestingly, he gave me an introduction to one of the boatyards near Haiphong where they do maintenance and some new construction, and Ms. Cuc gave me some good instructions, all of which leads to my tale of inglorious wandering in the general vicinity of Haiphong yesterday. I set out (in the cold gray morning) for highway 10a, about five miles north of Uong Bi on the main highway back to Hanoi. . .I mean, that's where I should have set out for. I had a firm picture in my mind of the turnoff onto Hwy 10 and proceeded there, about 10 miles SOUTH of Uong Bi. Note the lack of an “a” after the 10. It's relevant. Thus, nearly frozen I came to yet another fabulous new bridge (Cau Binh) into Haiphong, where I'd no intention of going, and about 15 miles from where I should have been. So THEN I bothered with looking over my directions more carefully and plotted a sort-of course back toward where I should have been. Made it eventually, but it would have never happened without the note Ms. Cuc wrote for me in the back of my field book. I don't doubt that what it really says is something like “this poor lost foreigner is trying to get to the boatyard at. . .” and that's the effect it had. When writing for my benefit her handwriting is crisp and clear. When she wrote for a Vietnamese audience I cannot read it. Don't ask, I don't know. However, instead of coming back to town in ample time to clean up (it may be cold but it's still filthy on the road) I barely had time to wash my hands and face and pull on my only clean pair of jeans before Cuong came to get me. The night time ride clear across Bai Chai and most of Hon Gai (including the gorgeous bridge between the two halves of the city). . .was cold. Gorgeous, but cold. It's supposed to warm up this week. I'm ready. (Do you wonder about the fact that every year I begin by griping about the cold and/or wet in the North and then promptly spend three or four days trying to get South out of the weather, when all the time there's a perfectly good airport in Saigon. . .nice and warm. . .h'mm.) Anyway, I found the boatyard, met Mr. Quy, Mr. Dung and Ms. Cuc, won't get out to the floating museum in this gray cold weather, and it's about time to move on. The way the highways work, I'll return to Hanoi for the night, then on to the South.