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Day 85 – Peeking into Nooks and Crannies (Trekking, Kayaking, Cat Ba Island)

May 27, 2010

Dateline: Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island, Vietnam – Thursday, May 27, 2010

Once again, I’m going light on the words and letting the pictures do the talking. Halong Bay can pretty much speak for itself.

A bit of context, though. Our itinerary for the day involved a pre-breakfast hike up Dao Ti Top for some views of the bay. From there we left seven of our twelve passengers for a smaller boat. The seven had only booked a two-day/one-night tour while we’d booked three-day/two-night sojourns. This left the younger Brit couple with Michelle, Ruben, and me for the rest of the day’s activities.

The big boat headed back to Halong City to drop off the seven and presumably pick up another load of tourists. We headed off for a trek on Cat Ba Island. Our smaller boat picked us up on the other side of the hills and took us to the resort area of Cat Ba for some free time and dinner on our own. We spent the night at a high-rise hotel.

I can’t let the day go without three quick anecdotes though. I’ll sprinkle them amongst the pictures.

First up, the trek. Our boat pulled up to a little inlet on Cat Ba and dropped us off for our trek. The trek went straight up the side of the island and then descended into a landlocked salt lake. Water from the ocean seeped through the rock and settled inland. There, we found a middle-aged farmer tending to his clam field. He chatted with our guide and moved on.

As we circled the lake along the side of the hill, we came across the farmer’s home. A simple elevated bed with a mosquito net, a table and chairs, and various tools of his trade. Set off to the side was a small kitchen area. All of it sat under a thatched roof in the middle of a small patch of tapioca plants and fruit trees. Turns out he lives here year round working the lake, just like his parents had for 21 years of their lives.

He collects cans to string up in the trees so that at night he can wake up and rattle them to scare off the monkeys that try to eat his fruit.

He rarely leaves this little valley. Did I mention his wife lives in Hanoi? Tough life, to say the least. I wonder what he thinks as he watches tourists march through his valley, past his lake, and through his abode. He didn’t seem like he minded and even greeted us in Vietnamese as we descended on him. I wonder if I’d do the same if I were in his position.

Second up, what happened on the boat while we were on the trek. Our guide reminded us multiple times to take all our money with us on the hike. He may have been on to something. When we got back to the boat the Brit couple noticed that their stuff had been gone through. Things that had been packed in specific ways were now in disarray. The boat crew had gone through our bags. Nothing was missing, but that’s probably because we took all our cash with us. Because of this, we could all shrug it off as the perils of traveling in a poor country. Lucky we had our guide on our side.

Finally, let’s talk about these claim/fishing houses. They’re wooden houses of varying sizes scattered throughout Halong Bay. The homes sit on pontoons and bamboo. Sometimes they sit alone, isolated. Other times they’re clumped together into little floating villages. Since this is the 21st century, some even have satellite dishes.

They absolutely fascinate me. After lunch, I took a kayak to paddle around the bay while the others lounged and swam near our boat.

Here’s what I learned on my little sortie. Whole families live on these things. I could see little kids in the houses. Most houses appear to be one main room, sometimes with a smaller closet room to the side. The farmers use baskets to plant and harvest clams. They fill the baskets with dirt, shells, and other unidentified items that no doubt make clams grow quickly. They then plant the clams and dangle the baskets in the water where the clams can grow.

The houses and farms thrive here because the sea is sheltered by all the rock formations. Clam farming works best in calmer ocean. These floating farms wouldn’t last very long in even moderately choppy waters.

It’s a very different life. I’ve heard a rumor that some of these people will never set foot on dry land in their lives. The fact that I feel like this concept just can’t be true is a testament to my strong socioeconomic bias. Who lives like this nowadays, what with cities and port towns so near with their fancy hotels, internet, and dry land? It’s not like all those luxuries are in far off Netherlands—they’re just round the corner. Park your boat and try it sometime.

I know it’s not that simple, though. Not everyone can just traipse off and drop exorbitant amounts of money on indulgences like dinner and a movie. Also, what’s so different between us and them? Tell one of them that we spend half our lives in tall office buildings high above the ground and they’d probably look at us funny. Tell them that we’ve never killed our food with our own hands and they’d probably ask, “Why not? I mean, you easily could, if you wanted to, so why haven’t you tried?”

Then again, the idea might not be so foreign since they’ve probably caught reruns of “Everybody Loves Raymond” on satellite TV.

We live in a strange world.

GALLERY: Click through to see today’s gallery which includes pictures of Mervyn standing awkwardly in front of beautiful scenery, the Vega Travel boat’s room and bathroom, the view from Mervyn’s room on Cat Ba Island, and lots of bonus pictures of trekking, the married guy’s hut, and the floating fishing and clam villages of Halong Bay.

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