We were in Vietnam early in February, so we went to Ha Long Bay.
It’s easy to talk about this geology in the abstract — limestone slowly lifted, eroded by tropical moisture, maybe etched at the waterline by living creatures — but it would be hard to prepare for the magnitude. Not only are these islands tall and thin, but they seem to go on forever. We had paddled through this kind of seascape before, in the Rock Islands of Palau, but even they cannot match the profusion seen here. Though the jewels-strewn-by-defending-dragons theory of their origin is now largely discounted, well, they’re still pretty amazing anyway.
This would be the place to look, for people who had become sea creatures. There are plenty of islands but, by the very same token, there’s not much level land. People have created places for themselves by making floating platforms of their own instead.
Typical among purposes is aquaculture. This seems to be done on a more intimate scale than the fish farming we have seen in Puget Sound. Here’s a fish farm where we got to see some of the “livestock” up close.
We arrived aboard a junk sailed by Eco Friendly Vietnam. They’ll arrange to have you driven to Hai Phong, where you take the hydrofoil to Cat Ba Island. They pick you up at the ferry dock and take you across town to the dock where their boat leaves for the islands.
The itinerary is flexible even after you’ve sailed. We had thought of this as a kayak trip, but unseasonably cool weather made it more appealing just to stay aboard the junk most of the time. Excellent food offered at short intervals reinforced this habit. We spent part of our middle day hiking, though, and I did paddle at one spot, an island with two separate tunnel archways leading to an inner lagoon, astonishing anyplace else but fairly routine here in Ha Long Bay. We watched wild monkeys from the kayak, and a pretty little starling seemed interested in our passage.
One could imagine this buoyant lifestyle as an ages-old tradition, ready to be studied and explained, but our guide says that its origin is very different. The people afloat here are the children of urban dwellers, themselves former merchants and laborers and shopkeepers, who spent their formative years not going to school but instead hiding in caves to survive aerial bombardment, developing the subsistence strategies that we see today. Here’s a view of a more densely populated area closer to the tourist center: