There are places you can end up in the world where you can’t seem to get your eyes to close for fear you’ll miss the next spectacular turn. Halong Bay in Vietnam is one of those places.
A couple days ago, a boat sunk there in the bay, killing a number of people. They call this type of boat a “cruise junk”, and they’re quite common in parts of the bay. We took a 3 day cruise on one of these “junks” last week, so I’d like to talk a little about the junks themselves and what the tours typically look like. Then in my next post I’d like to talk about my experience on the tour last week, and what the bay left behind in my heart and mind after the 3 day tour.
The Ha Long Bay Cruise
There are several “piers” in both Ha Long City and Hai Phong city where junk cruises depart from. The two cities seem to have the bay “divided up”, so that they stay out of each other’s territory. While I’m sure there are “day cruises” as well, it seemed to me that the overnight cruise was what nearly everyone purchased. The level of “luxury” seemed to be widely varied, though generally the price for a 2 day, 1 night cruise seemed to run from $200 – $500 per person.
Regarding safety precautions and western style public safety, you’ve to to realize that this is Vietnam, not the West. In the West our judicial systems seem less corrupt than those in countries like Vietnam, and we have judicial codes that hold parties responsible for damage to other parties. This doesn’t seem to be the case in Vietnam. Compounding this is the “value” that we seem to put on human life in the west, vs the value in countries like Vietnam. Keep in mind that if you’re a lucky average worker in Vietnam, you’ll earn $5/day. If they lose a worker on a job site – through poor practice or just plain accident – there’s another one ready to take the job, and I suspect there’s little (if any) inquiry into the loss of life, assuming the right bribes are placed.
On our 3 day tour, I saw nothing that made me want to return to shore in terms of safety. However, I also lived on the “passenger” side of the boat, so have no idea what the engine room or other areas “below” looked like. In fact, after spending several days on the streets of both Ha Long City and Ha Noi, the boat seemed relatively safe. That’s more a statement, by the way, of the streets and traffic than of the boat. That’s another post…
Regarding general “maritime safety”, I’m no expert, and my opinion is given for free – take it for what it’s worth. That said, it seemed to me that there was a reasonable degree of “maritime professionalism” on the bay and between boats – at least as it relates to interacting with one another, and maintaining safety between each other.
It seemed that the cruise lines had all agreed on a few “highlight spots”, where they would all stop for passengers to visit. These spots varied from fishing villages to beaches to caves. At each of these “stops” it can be madness, as hundreds of tourists from various boats all clamor ashore to enjoy the remote beauty amid the throngs of others enjoying the remote beauty.
In this respect, western style tourism has arrived in full force in Vietnam…
Having offered this critical little quip, I have to say that even amid the throngs, the beauty of the places the cruises took you to was breathtaking.
While English is accepted as the Lingua Franca in Vietnam as in most of the world today, the English spoken by most in the tourist industry there is very limited. For those accustomed to traveling, and accustomed to finding ways to communicate with limited overlapping language, the language is not an issue really – you can figure it out. However, most folks in the US have never had to deal with this, and really struggle when someone speaks only a little English.
In Vietnam, (as in most of SE Asia), Western tourism dollars have become absolutely critical to government coffers, local economies, and local workers. Most of the individual workers that we interfaced with – once you asked and learned a bit more about their life – considered tourists to be the delivers of manna in an economic blight. One of our “guides”, for example, grew up in a coal mining town close by. His father is 60, and sounds close to death with lung issues. He felt lucky that his father got him a job at the coal mine, but was able to leave that job to work as a tour boat guide, where he earns much more without the health risk.
So, while my Western eye might look at this guy, and feel bad at the long hours he works and the poor working conditions, this job is almost the lap of luxury to him, compared to the life he’d have without the tourism industry. This is important perspective for the Western observer, because it underpins an extreme dedication on the part of the people in the area to make sure their Western visitors are pleased.
There are no surly waiters in Vietnam…
In fact, it’s almost embarrassing sometimes how much folks fawn over tourists. I particularly enjoyed how they had adapted what they believed to be humor. They would tell jokes or word-plays that could probably have been carried off within the context of a Western conversation, but that was comically flat when they said it. Of course, once the tourists realized that this was an attempt at humor, most would laugh dutifully. I found this particularly enjoyable to observe, and you could see the keen eye of the worker watching the crowd to see how well he was learning the language.
Which brings me to my final observation – the dedication and hard work of the people of that area. During the civil war of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s – the one that America participated in – this area was bombed repeatedly. It’s likely that millions of people died as a result of the bombing. Cities and culture were destroyed. To survive, people hid in the many limestone caves that riddle the small islands of the area.
The region survived that brutality, and they continue to survive under the yoke of totalitarian style government. Yet, my interactions with individuals never left me with a feeling that there was resentment of the US for the bombs we dropped or the people we killed. I was always left with a feeling of welcome and genuine personal friendliness. People there often work much harder than we in the West can imagine, and make far less than we can fathom. If I were in their shoes, I would feel great resentment toward Westerners – especially in light of the propaganda I am sure the Communist regime feeds them.
Yet, I never saw that or felt it from anyone. Surely it must exist, but must remain hidden. Even with the incentive that Western tourism dollars represents for folks to hide their resentment, I would still have expected to see some of it exposed. Perhaps with enough time in the right places I would see it, but based on what I saw, these people seem among the hardest working, most dedicated, and friendliest in the world.
Next, my own personal experiences on a Junk Cruise last week…
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