Ha Long Bay, Life on the Water
Vịnh Hạ Long
The canvas topsail of the junk boat flaps gently in the wind and the bamboo rods clang against one another. Underneath the deck, the waves ripple and splash. People have been sailing since dawn, drifting and floating on the calm Ha Long Bay within the enchantment of the great nature. As they drift along, hundreds, if not thousands, of limestone formations fades in and out of view-some clear, some in graduating shades of blue creating a mesmerizing sight along the coast of northern Việt Nam. This bay is named the Descent of the Dragon, where, according to one tale, Vietnamese civilization was said to have originated.
At the beginning of time, so goes the tale, one hundred eggs were born to a dragon and a fairy. Fifty children went with the fairy mother and settled in the mountains and valleys where they cultivated rice. The rest followed the dragon father and conquered the sea. Listening with such a tale, it’s no wonder we’re in awe of this panorama, especially when told we are con rồng cháu tiên (children of the dragon and fairy).
When looked upon closely, the formations do indeed look like animals and objects after which they’ve been named – some based on their shapes, some poetic or linked to local legends. They include Fortress Island, Incenses-Burner Island, Surprise Island, Marvel Island, Puppet Island, Monkey Island, and Fighting Rooster Island. The mountains seem to just right of the sea and touch the sky. Grottoes are filled with amazing stalactites and stalagmites, creating stunning temples of nature. Ha Long Bay is worthy to be considered to be the Eighth Wonder.
In the Cove of Stars, near the Toad Seaway, halfway between the open sea and the port of Hòn Gai, fishermen and their families are gathered into a floating village. As soon as evening falls, junks and sampans converge to form improvised clusters, sheltered behind the huge rocks, safe from storms, ill winds and pirates. Today, the wooden homes of fishermen are moored throughout the year and attached to floats. The village of Cửa Vạn, the largest fishing village in Ha Long Bay. With approximately 200 households living mainly by fishing, Cửa Vạn floating village has a population of 800 and they all live on floating houses. Day and night, gently rolling and pitching, the fishing community follows the rhythm of the seasons and the tides.
Golden sunlight bathes the waters of the Ha Long Bay in the autumn. Across the bay, the typhoons have died down, the waters have ceased roaring and the wind no longer whips up the waves. Everyone, young and old, has been mobilized for the last good fishing trips of the season. Soft light fills the Gulf of Tonkin, giving the villages, cliffs and coves a warm glow that marks the end of the festive season, before the onset of winter.
Beneath their floating homes in the Ha Long Bay, families set up fish farms. Cage-like nets are extended beneath the planks of the jetty. Young fish caught by the fishermen or bought from sellers are placed in this keeping net. Catfish, grouper and red mullet, whose flesh is highly prized, can grow here, safe from predators; growing the fish is both hard and isolating work. It takes two adults half a day to feed their schools, which they do every other day. This how the fishermen overcome a shortage of income in the winter and during poor seasons. The farmed fish sell for a good price, giving the families a regular source of income and saving them from having to resort to loans of money is tight in the family.
Sunday is the longest day in Cửa Vạn. As soon as the sun rises, the children get together to play in their rowing boats or do some fishing. At about nine in the morning, courting couples in their best clothes discreetly head for the nearest rocks, hoping for some privacy. People go on visits and few make for the port. Karaoke songs fill the air, mingling with the laughter of children. When night falls, children and parents gather in front of the TV set.
Just as streets are lined with homes, so the rock walls rise on each side of the waterways. Everywhere, there are avenues, boulevards, esplanades or curving alleys. If the sea has replaced the paved roadway, could it be because the land suddenly sank, as the fishermen claim? The water level rose, half-submerging town. Before it was invaded by the waves, spirits had made their home there. Some has heard that sampan owners sometimes find mysterious marvels, submerged treasures, deep in the coves. Perhaps this is why they are drawn to the endless meanders of this unique city.