First let me apologize for the lack of pictures, at some point we'll get them up, but we don't have that chip on us right now because it was left in a cab in Bangkok. But worry not, we are getting it back miraculously. I'll put up a picture or two from the internet just so you can see the bay in general though.
Ha Long Bay was one of those sights that just smacks you in the face with its unique beauty. In the last few years, it has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Incidentally, we are racking up quite a list that we have visited on this trip.), and with good reason. The limestone mountains/hills that pop up out of the bay provide a striking contrast with the water and sky surrounding them. We learned a story about the origin of the Bay.
Long ago when the Vietnamese were fighting Chinese invaders, the gods sent a family of dragons to help defend the land. This family of dragons began spitting out jewels and jade. These jewels turned into the islands and islets dotting the bay, linking together to form a great wall against the invaders. The people kept their land safe and formed what later became Vietnam. After that, dragons were interested in peaceful sightseeing of the Earth and decided to live here then. The place where the Mother Dragon flew down was named Hạ Long.
But first, to get there we took a 4 hour drive or so from Ha Noi. On the way there, we stopped at a store where one could buy all sorts of creations like hand made tapestries, jade bracelets, and limestone carvings, but the interesting part of the store wasn't the products, though some were very nice. Most of the products were made by people who suffered from birth defects caused by Agent Orange. And the salesman employed by the organization were also affected by the Agent Orange. If there was one feature that most seemed to display, they seemed to have a limp that originated somewhere in the knee area. Regardless of their physical limitations, the people were happy to see tourists and provide them with some kind of product, of which Dad obviously bought a few choice items.
After the few hour long ride, we reached Ha Long Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin and we boarded our Junk, which is what the old Vietnamese nobility used to call their recreational sleeper vessels. The junk was going to take us around the bay and stop at a few spots for us to see the local attractions. The bay is famous for a few things: its pearls, its limestone karsts (isles), and its floating villages. You can see the few pics we have of the limestone karsts which provide an unreal setting. We were lucky because even though it was cloudy, it was still clear and usually the visibility in the bay isn't as good as we had it while there. These little islets are mostly untouched by man and they are mostly uninhabited. People do live in the bay though. I mean literally in the bay. Not around the bay. In it (but not underwater obviously).
We visited a floating village which is just that, a collection of houses that float on the water—not people living on boats. They lived in small houses protected from wind and rain by situating themselves near a large islet. If a typhoon comes in the bay though, they are in trouble. They are fairly poor, but I did see a DVD player and TV in the one house that we "boarded" when we saw their farm. Our guide told us we would visit a fish farm. When he told me where we were heading, I went through my brain to try to figure out what a fish farm would be or if I had ever even heard that term before. How could they control fish like pigs or chickens for example? So we get off the junk and get onto a smaller accompanying motorboat and travel through the floating village heading for a particular house. We get there, tie up our boat, and hop onto their front porch. Of course they offered us some green tea and then they showed us their farm. You know what they did? They lifted up a few boards of their front porch and underneath were a few baby sharks that were kept in space of about 10 feet cubed by a net that kept its square shape with rocks in the corners. If the net got a hole in it, the sharks could escape if they wanted I suppose and I wouldn't want to be the one who had to fix it either. There weren't really any schools for the children to attend and miraculously the Vietnamese gov't doesn't give them any significant amount of money even though the village brings in a few million dollars each year from tourism.
One of the islets we visited is called Titop Island and we climbed the few hundred steps to get to the top for an amazing view (pictures forthcoming) of the beach below and the bay. Another island we stopped off at was to see the huge cave that locals found many years back so they'd have some refuge from bad storms. The cave was huge and had some interesting stalagmite/tite formations (pictures forthcoming also—these are certainly unique so check back for 'em.) and a few different rooms and even some vegetation growing where light shone through.
We stayed on a beautiful junk but had to head back to Ha Noi to catch our overnight train to Sapa. On the way back, we stopped at the Dong Ho village where they used to be famous for making wood block carvings. Essentially, it's the same process as printmaking. Many people in the village used to do it except during the war nobody had enough money to keep the tradition going. So people forgot how to do it, and now only this one guy and his sons are able to continue the artistic tradition. We visited his house and saw the beautiful art and became further acquainted with the common artistic expression of the four seasons. The artist makes four panels that each represent one season. On each panel is some lkind of vegetation: bamboo for winter, a peach flower (or cherry blossom) for spring, a big flower for summer, and a fruit for fall. This is recalled from Laurie's and my memory so we could be wrong on what represented what season but I think that's what it was. We also became further acquainted with the Chinese symbol for longevity. It's a really cool circular design and we began to see it everywhere in Vietnam, as Chinese culture has seeped into Vietnamese culture undoubtedly. In fact, I read somewhere that the Chinese historically view Vietnam as a rogue province that they haven't been able to reacquire. We liked the symbol so much that Laurie bought a necklace of it when we got to Saigon. A lot of the wood block carvings were of traditional scenes like nobility riding elephants or of bamboo, but we did see one that was much more modern: it showed Vietnamese soldiers capturing an American soldier and it was dated sometime in the early seventies.
Our last stop before getting back to Ha Noi was at a village where we enjoyed some songs performed by the village choir. The songs were of the same themes that we heard from Ba Pho and his family during our private concert at their museum. The members of the chorus dressed in traditional costume and the songs were really beautiful. The kids of the village wandered over to see what was going on and a few started to make a ruckus. The matron of the group stared the child down and he retreated back to continuing his play elsewhere. The contrast of the modern and the old was quite apparent. But it seemed the traditional won this time. Finally, we got to Ha Noi for dinner and to catch our overnight train to Sapa where we would encounter a ridiculous fog up in the mountains.