Saturday, August 22, 2015

Beyond the Descending Dragon: Vietnam’s Northeast Coast

                                                                 by Jim Goodman

typical scenery of Bái Tử Long Bay 
       Of all of Vietnam’s scenic attractions, the World Heritage site of H Long Bay in Qung Ninh, the northeastern province bordering China, is the best known.  A boat ride through the bay, with views of its picturesque islets popping up from the sea in a thousand shapes and sizes, plus stops at island caverns, lagoons and floating villages, is practically obligatory for any first visit to Vietnam.  Even those travelers who don’t go there know what it looks like from the advertising posters at tourist agencies throughout the country.
one of the inhabited islands in Bái Tử Long bay
       Certainly H Long Bay deserves its reputation.  Even on sunless, drizzly days it can still be enchanting.  But it is not the only attraction in the province.  Just east of H Long lies Bái Tử Long Bay, studded with equally photogenic islets, pretty ports and larger islands with villages and beaches.  Beyond Bái Tử Long, more islands, generally larger, lie off the serrated coast.  And at the end is the long, thin island of Trà Cổ, with its unique fishing vessels, and the pleasant and prosperous border town of Móng Cái.
       Hạ Long in English means ‘Descending Dragon’ and refers to the mythical origin of the bay and its islands.  According to local belief, a celestial dragon descended to the earth at this bay and left many eggs.  These hatched to become the myriad islands off the Quảng Ninh coast.  Then the dragon said goodbye to her offspring and departed from the bay next to Hạ Long, called Bái Tử Long, which in English means ‘Dragon Parting from Offspring.’  Geologists, of course, have another explanation, attributing the formation of the islands to tectonic shifts that raised and lowered the seabed 300 million years ago.
limestone islets, Bái Tử Long Bay
       Bái Tử Long Bay’s boundaries begin halfway between Hạ Long city and Cẩm Phả, a port servicing the coal mining industry in the hills behind it.  While this town is not interesting to anyone not involved with the coal business, a few of the islands out in the bay from here, like Cống Đông, Ngọc Vừng and Quan Lạn are popular getaway destinations for Vietnamese tourists.  Quan Lạn Island holds a summer festival commemorating a famous naval victory at Hồn Gai, just east of Hạ Long city, in the third Mongol War in 1288, when the Vietnamese sank all the Mongol supply ships.  This forced the invaders to evacuate Vietnam and get annihilated on the way out.
island temple, Bái Tử Long Bay
       Temples to the Trần Dynasty heroes who beat the mighty Mongols abound in the area.  One at Cửa Ông, the next port east of Cẩm Phả, honors them ceremonially twice a year.  But the Mongol Wars are not the area’s only link to Vietnam’s history.  Just across the water from Cửa Ông is the large, wedge-shaped Cái Bầu Island, which takes up half the area of the Vân Đồn district archipelago.  Cái Rồng, 7 km from the bridge at Cửa is its largest port.  In 1149 the Lý Dynasty Court established Văn Đồn as the country’s center for international maritime commerce.
leaving Hòn Gai port
       Cái Rồng may have existed already back then, but it was just one of many wharves at numerous locations along the shores.  Ships also put in at docks on some of the other islands in the bay.  Most of the products traded here at that time were luxury items:  rhino horn, ivory, pearls, gold, silver, copper, celadon porcelain, silk and brocade fabrics.  Ships called at Vân Đồn from southern China and from as far south as Indonesia.
       In later centuries the Vân Đồn archipelago’s commercial importance declined with the shift of maritime trade to new ports like Phố Hiến and Hải Phòng.  In the late 18th century the area became infested with Chinese pirates, who found that the many islands provided natural shelters for their bases.  They operated all along the coast of Vietnam and in the 1780s forged alliances with the leaders of the Tây Sơn Revolt.  The Tây Sơn regime’s deal gave them a veneer of respectability for their job, which was basically raiding and plundering.  In return for official protection and titles like Marquis, Governor, Commander, King Who Pacifies the Waves and King of the Eastern Seas, pirate chiefs pledged loyalty to the regime and turned over their takings to government agents in exchange for a hefty percentage of the haul’s value.
Cái Rồng port
       They also comprised the bulk of Tây Sơn naval forces deployed against the rival Nguyễn forces.  Eventually the latter, aided by French advisors, built up a more formidable navy, helping them win final victory in 1802.  Most of the pirate chiefs stayed loyal to the Tây Sơn until the end, but afterwards left the area and the coast of Quảng Ninh remained free of pirates.
       Today the ancient wharves that punctuated the entire coast of Cái Bầu Island have disappeared, but Cái Rồng is still an active port.  The harbor is about 1.5 km from the business quarter, stretching a few hundred meters between hills at either end.  The oddly shaped limestone islets that characterize the scenery of both Hạ Long and Bái Tử Long Bays stand much closer to the shore than at Hạ Long city, providing a pretty backdrop for the array of boats anchored near the piers.
boats in the Cái Rồng harbor
       Some of these are passenger boats that take people to Hồn Gai or one of the islands in the bay.  Most are fishing vessels of one sort or another, some with sails and masts, others entirely motorized.  Some have a long pole attached to the front that swings out to one side, with a net attached to trawl the seas to catch the fish. Several serve as houseboats as well and a couple of big boats stay anchored in front of nearby islands and are floating restaurants.
       Throughout the harbor area sampans serve as taxi-ferries to and from the floating restaurants or take tourists on scenic runs through the immediate, islet-studded area.  Others take fresh produce and packaged goods to customers aboard the bigger boats.  A row of three or four-story buildings—shop houses and modest hotel-restaurants—lines the street along the piers, facing the bay.  A few places start offering bia hơi refreshments in the late afternoon, just as the setting sun begins enriching all the colors in the harbor and lights start appearing on the bigger boats. Seafood dominates the restaurant menus, especially Bái Tử Long specialties like sea worms, prawns, squid, sea snails and oysters.
taking goods to the people aboard the boats
       From Cái Rồng it is possible to arrange boat trips to some of the bigger islands in the bay, but regular ferry services link Hồn Gai with Quan Lạn, with possible stops at Cống Đông, famous for its Trần Dynasty architectural relics near the port of Thắng Lợi, or Ngọc Vừng, one of the rare, non-limestone. earthen islands in the area, and the site of ruined fortresses from the Mạc and Nguyễn Dynasties.  Pristine sand beaches mark long sections of the coastlines of these and of Quan Lạn Island further on.  Just off the northern tip of Quan Lạn lies Minh Châu Island, opposite Côn Trụi Island and its protected area for nesting sea turtles.  Further out to sea, past the boundaries of Bái Tử Long Bay, lies Cô Tô Island, famous for its coral reefs.  In short, options abound here for any traveler ready for leisurely, interesting island hopping.
the pier area at Ngọc Vừng Island
       Sea turtles make their nests and lay eggs every year from May to July on a steep sandy bank on Côn Trụi Island, 500 meters from the Minh Châu harbor.  They wait until midnight, preferring stormy nights when humans are unlikely to be around and the waves are strong enough to propel them to the highest, driest parts of the land.  Only here can the eggs they lay, safe from flooding or landslides, hatch into young turtles.
       Upon arriving on the bank, the mother turtle selects a spot and then begins using its front paws to dig a hole in the sand.  When the front half of its body is within the hole it then uses its back paws to compete digging a round hole 50-70 cm deep, into which the turtle then crawls and lays dozens of eggs.  When this is completed, the turtle covers the nest with sand and returns to the sea.
       The eggs normally hatch 45-60 days later.  After a few days the newborns leave the nest and try to make it to the sea.  Predators in wait, like sea birds, snakes and iguanas pick off a good number of them, while others fail to find food when in the sea.  Zoologists estimate only one in a thousand actually survive.  Those females that do manage to live to about twenty years of age subsequently return to the place of their birth to lay their own eggs. 
boats at Trà Cổ
       Further up the coast of Quảng Ninh to the Chinese border are several more islands, but the weirdly shaped limestone islets prominent in Hạ Long and Bái Tử Long Bays are rare.  At the very end of the province is Trà Cổ Island, long and thin, with a single road running parallel to the beach and wide brick pathways every couple hundred meters or so leading to the seaside.  The shadiest part of town is near the center, by the toad junction branching to Móng Cái.  The town’s hotels and bars are clustered here, though there are also restaurants on many of the brick paths going to the beach.  
       Trà Cổ is popular with both Vietnamese and Chinese tourists, who come for a splash in the sea and indulgence in tasty fresh seafood.  Westerners don’t seem to know about the place.  The beach is long and clean, but the views from it are admittedly rather ordinary compared to the scenery of Bại Tử Long; just a few distant islands with not very arresting shapes.  Surely those 18th century pirates didn’t find any suitable lairs around Trà Cổ.  They would have been too exposed to both the winds and the vessels of authorities hunting for them.
unusual hull of a Trà Cổ boat
taking home horseshoe crabs at Trà Cổ
       What makes Trà Cổ more than just another beach, and justifies the journey getting there, is the unique type of fishing boat here.  These boats are about five meters long and a meter and a half wide, with four or five bamboo poles per side and a hull consisting of big blocks of the kind of Styrofoam plastic used for packing appliances.  They do not have masts or sails.  Crews launch them by pushing them into the water, using oars to row them out to sea, then turn on their motors. 
river traffic at Móng Cái
     They fish with nets and often begin at dawn, so that the crews can be back with their catch in time for the morning market.  The nets trap various kinds of fish as well as sea snails, oysters, horseshoe crabs and other shellfish.  For the rest of the day the boats are parked along the beach, sometimes turned on their sides. 
       Several kilometers north of Trà Cổ is the friendly, bustling border town of Móng Cái, opposite Dongxing in Guangxi province, China.  Thanks to its lucrative cross-border trade, the 100,000+ residents of Móng Cái enjoy one of the highest per capita incomes in all of Vietnam.  It’s hard to find a building here older than two decades, with new ones going up constantly. 
       The town straddles a river, the eastern portion partly residential, the western side a more recently developed commercial zone.  Chinese goods dominate the markets and department stores, many of them intended for distribution to other parts of Vietnam.  Good seafood is available at the restaurants at prices surprisingly much lower than at Trà Cổ or Cái Rồng.  But it’s at the wharves along the river by the bridge connecting the two parts of Móng Cái that the most interesting scenes take place.
cargo boat on Bái Từ Long Bay
       Here people load and unload goods and passengers from boats on their way to or from the border, a little ways upriver, or one of the riverside villages downstream towards the sea.  Some boats are moored beside the landing docks, while others are anchored in groups in the middle of the river.  Action on the river stays pretty constant all day long.
       Near where the river meets the sea is a small port for hydrofoil boats to take passengers to Hạ Long city.  Unless one is going on to China, this is a superior way to return to Hạ Long than the long bus journey that largely avoids views of the sea.  It gives the passengers another last look at the wonderful variety of little islands sticking up above the surface of the sea.  And it may also provoke final fantasies of 12th century junks full of exotic merchandise, 13th century naval battles, 18th century pirate hiding places and 21st century sea turtles, waiting for a proper stormy summer night.
sampan in the Hòn Gai harbor

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