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
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.
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.
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
|Trần Khánh Dư in Quan Lạn's chèo drama
|village boat races
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
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