Saturday, June 22, 2013


                                                        by Jim Goodman

    Most people traveling to Quảng Ninh only seem to know about Hạ Long Bay and Cát Bà Island.  But of Quảng Ninh's historic temples, mountain monasteries, ethnic minorities, border trade posts and even the ports and islands of the rest of its coastline virtually no advertising exists, no photos posted to entice a visitor.  Hạ Long Bay gets it all, for no trip to the north is complete without a journey there.  But Quảng Ninh has other attractions, also in beautiful surroundings, perhaps even more enjoyable, with an atmosphere far less commercial, and personal encounters more natural.
Bái Tử Long Bay
    The nearest such place is right next door to the east, called Bái Tử Long Bay.  In addition to the kind of islets and big boulders jutting out of the water like Hạ Long, Bái Tử Long also contains, at its eastern end, the large island of Vân Đồn.  An ancient port here, probably at contemporary Cái Róng, was Vietnam's original maritime connection to the outside world.  In use off and on during the last centuries of Chinese rule, it was reconstituted as a port and administrative district in 1149 under King Lý Anh Tông. 
    Cái Róng has a couple big empty beaches and a lovely harbor studded with rocky islets and jammed with fishing boats.  But as a destination in Bái Tử Long it is less popular than Quan Lạn, a long and narrow island in the southern part of the bay.  It has big, clean beaches at both ends, an 18th century đình in good condition and a grand festival every summer that commemorates the island's role in Vietnam's defeat of the third, and final, Mongol invasion in 1288.
Ngọc Vừng
    While it’s possible to get there from Cái Róng harbor the usual way is by taking the ferry from Hòn Gai, a lovely, four-hour journey of 55 kilometers that begins in the northeastern part of picturesque Hạ Long Bay.  Boats of all types ply the waters:  fishing vessels from one-man sampans to big trawlers, ferries and tour boats, long barges carrying industrial goods, like the coal from Cẩm Phả, and, further out, huge international commercial liners.
    The Quan Lạn ferry makes two short stops en route, at Tháng Lợi and Ngọc Vừng.  Both are small island towns with batches of houseboats floating off shore.  From the latter it’s a short ride to the pier at the southern tip of Quan Lạn Island and another two kilometers to Quan Lạn town.  Of the island’s two main settlements, this is the larger one, with several modest guesthouses and small restaurants and a market near the đình. 
horseshoe crab
    The smaller settlement, Minh Châu, lies near the northern tip of the island, with its own pier and harbor.  It is close to a military camp as well as the island’s only real industrial unit—a silicon extraction plant that turns part of the beach into glass.   Most of the islanders are farmers, for the land is mostly flat.  Fishing is more of a supplementary occupation.  Islanders cannot compete anyway with the big trawlers.  But they do manage to catch the usual run of fish, prawns, squids and clams, plus a load of horseshoe cabs every day.
    This creature, at least double the size of an ordinary sea crab, looks like a live miniature ancient tank.  Vendors only sell them in pairs, explaining that they cannot separate married couples.  Since females have eggs, giving them more edible parts than males, without this excuse vendors could only sell the female crabs.  The entire species would then soon die out.
    The town’s few restaurants usually open only during the day.  It’s best to inform the guest house in advance you want to eat there at night, so that the staff has time to buy the ingredients before the shops all close.  This is, after all, a remote area, with electricity only in the evenings and no nightlife or entertainment to speak of, other than television and bia hơi.
Quan Lạn festival procession
    Visitors don’t come here looking for a lively disco scene anyway.  They come for the beach, the peace and quiet, the fresh air and seafood and the friendly people.  This is a place to relax, eat well and sleep well.  Even the fishing activity here is rather subdued compared to other islands.  The tidal changes leave great sections of exposed mud flats at low tide.  At times ferry passengers going to Hòn Gai have to cram onto small, motorized rafts on a scary ride across the shallows out to where the ferry is anchored.  Hence the fishing boats are never close to shore, where they could be something to watch.
    For someone wrapped up in the hustle and bustle of urban life Quan Lạn Island offers an environment that is the exact opposite.  Yet for a few days each year the island fills with visitors as its residents make their annual commemoration of Quan Lạn’s part in the nation’s finest hour—its defeat of the third Mongol invasion in 1288. 
Trần Khánh Dư in Quan Lạn's chèo drama
village boat races
    Just three years earlier the Mongols had been ignominiously driven out of Vietnam.  With every place they captured they found the people had left and taken all their food with them.  Forced to forage the Mongols suffered so many losses they had to retreat to China.  This time they sent half of their roughly half million troops by land across the border passes and half by sea.  And to solve their food problem the Mongols hired a pirate captain to follow them with 150 ships laden with supplies.
    Trần Khánh Dư led the Vietnamese navy against the Mongol fleet when it reached Hạ Long Bay but was defeated.  The Mongols sailed upriver into the delta heartland while their land forces occupied Thăng Long and then awaited their supplies.  Atoning for his defeat, Trần Khánh Dư had ships built to replace his losses and then, basing himself at Quan Lạn, prepared to engage the pirate fleet.  When it entered the bay the Vietnamese ships pounced on them and sank all but one, which escaped back in the direction it came.  The victors allowed a few captives to go to the Mongol headquarters to reveal what happened. 
    As a result the Mongols were stuck trying to forage again and soon had to leave Vietnam.  And their navy, which had easily swept past the Vietnamese before, was trapped on stakes in the Bạch Đằng River and completely destroyed.
13th century style dragon boat
    Quan Lạn marks this event the 15th through 18th days of the 6th lunar month.  The đình sponsors the festival and hosts the rituals honoring Lý Anh Tông, Trần Khánh Dư and Phạm Công Chinh, one of his officers who hailed from this island.  Teams from the northern and southern parts of the island hold processions on separate days.  A stage goes up in the square between the đình and the waterfront and hosts folk songs and shows one night and a chèo drama about Trần Khánh Dư the final afternoon.
    The main attractions, though, are the boat races.  The first involves five long boats, built in the 13th century style, rowing across a stretch of the bay in front of the đình.   Crews from both parts of Quan Lạn and three neighboring islands compete.  The race the final day is between two teams, one from the island’s military camp, one from the civilians.  They set out from the dock by the đình, round stakes in the water a few hundred meters from shore and return.  Spectators watch from the shore or from boats sitting out in the bay.  When the race is over most of them will take their special tour boats back to Quảng Ninh, just a few staying one more night.
    The next day Quan Lạn life reverts to normal, to its unhurried, quiet and relaxing atmosphere.  Except for the motors on the boats and the evening electricity, it is hard to imagine it was much different even back before the Mongols came.
dragon boat race
                                                                   *  *  *

No comments:

Post a Comment