Jeff Warner PHOTOGRAPHIC, Golden, Colorado, USA

Thursday, October 27, 2011

10/27/11: Halong Bay

Our wonderful guide ‘Hung’ got us up and out early to get moving to the Halong Bay boat cruise. The immediate area around downtown Halong Bay where our hotel was located is not notable; there is a hill out the back, and there is one hill off in the distance, but it’s otherwise a sort of typical coastal town. At least considering what little I can see given the several-mile visibility, almost surely a result of pollution of one sort or another (local burning of rice slash clearly not the least of them).

The boat accommodated our group of 33 perfectly; it had a dining area downstairs, with an upstairs deck for watching the world go by. Ours was one of many, many boats departing this wharf area en route to the rocks, and boats zigged and zagged, occasionally passing one another as we got closer to the closely-spaced karst peaks jutting up out of the bay. The atmospheric conditions left much to be desired; I’d guess the visibility was 4+ miles, but the scenery was still amazing. Such an ethereal place, you could totally imagine Pirates of the Caribbean being filmed here. Once we got toward the rocks, boats just weaved in and out, wherever they wanted to go. Most of the peaks appeared to be about 800 to 1000’ high, but some were higher. 

Heidi bought these bananas from this little guy.

This fishermen family literally live on the water, and rarely go on land.

The visibility parted for about an hour, revealing some blue sky.

A little SAS pride!

We briefly ‘docked’ to disembark for our cave hike, although I’ll use that term rather loosely. It was more of a controlled collision into a rock/concrete platform, upon which we had to quickly jump out while the boat rocked wildly. About 100 stairs led us up underneath the forest canopy to reveal the opening to the cave. Lighted with very nice stone steps and paths throughout, the stalactites and stalagmites were beautiful, the ceiling typically being about 100 or so feet high. We came out on the other side of a hill, in an adjacent cove where our boat was waiting. After eating lunch en route back to the shoreline, we got back on the bus for the 2 hour drive back to Hanoi. Our time in Halong Bay was relatively short, the visibility was rather poor much of the time, but our time in this wondrous place was well worth the journey.

Along the way we made two stops to see people working both rice fields and vegetable crops, and Hung made sure to stop in places where there were people working right near the roadway. After seeing the cultivation of rice in person, I have a hard time imagining how plentiful and cheap rice is around the world, considering how incredibly laborious the process is. I had never seen rice grains on the plant before, and as the drive continued, we passed scores of driveways where it had been laid out to dry.

A gravesite of a field worker; they were commonly buried in the fields they worked, though the government is now trying to discourage the practice in the future.

This is how they had to water the fields, by hand!

Although our guide wouldn't come right out and say it, burning rice slash certainly didn't help the air quality in this area near the coal-fired power plant.


One of the towns along the road from Hanoi to Halong Bay is a coal mining town, with a power plant on the outskirts. The streets were horridly covered in black dust everywhere, and coal trucks were being washed in driveways all over, black sludge slopping off them in piles of disgusting muck, destined for some water source that could not possibly be used for drinking. This grey tour reminded me how bleak the pollution controls are in developing countries, and yet it’s not so unlike conditions in the U.S. decades ago. Coal is plentiful in many of these countries, and it’s hard to fault them for doing things us western countries did, before we learned both the short- and long-term ramifications of ignoring effluent streams of all kinds.

You can carry a LOT on a scooter!

Which reminds me what a novelty it is not to see trash everywhere! In India, you’d see people sweeping the trash from their 10x10 foot storefront ‘sidewalk’ into a pile, only to walk 2 additional feet and deposit it in the street, or to the far side of some demarcation line unseen by me, a line across which it was apparently deemed to be acceptable to pile garbage, despite the fact that it was only feet from it’s original place of rest on said vendor’s ‘property’. Weird. In Ghana, South Africa, Morocco, there was just trash everywhere, and it behooved you to watch your step. I can assure you that digging some unknown substance from the myriad cracks of your shoe sole is unpleasant, at best; given the rather ‘local’ nature of the sources of said gunk, it becomes even more unpleasant. But alas, once again, I digress.

We arrived back in Hanoi, and I found myself absolutely astounded by the traffic. At least as wild as India in some ways, though less chaotic in others. In Vietnam they at least obey traffic lanes and signals most of the time, but otherwise, all bets are off. Crossing the street was discussed in detail during our pre-port lectures, and I can now see why. In many places there are no signals, but a constant stream of traffic; they do NOT stop for pedestrians, you are merely a traffic cone to them, something to avoid hitting; it’s best you don’t do anything sudden, whether it’s stop, speed up, or change direction, otherwise you will SURELY be hit by a scooter, or worse. Traffic lights, if present, are generally adhered to… well, mostly. So, it goes like this: if you cannot find an elderly person to follow across the street, take your life into your hands, take a deep breath, look both ways, and just start walking. Slowly. Methodically. Making no furtive movements whatsoever in any direction. Do this, and you will live. Deviate from this, and you may die, and making right turns around the block repeatedly doesn’t necessarily get you where you want to go.

Luckily our room had a small balcony and the sliding glass door was unlocked, enabling me to get out with the tripod for some traffic shots from above. Take a good look at one of the images of the headlights going around the French water tower (c.1894) below. That’s what a motor scooter looks like, slowly crossing against a red light through rush hour traffic. Hilarious to watch, as you can only imagine from seeing his less-than-walking-pace, circuitous path through dozens of cars. I spent about 20 minutes photographing the traffic, trying to time the traffic signals with the 13- to 30-second exposures to capture different facets of the motorized chaos playing out before my eyes.
After a great dinner, the group went to a traditional Water Puppet Show, complete with live music and fire-breathing dragons. Virtually unknown outside Vietnam until the 1970s, the art form called ‘roi nuoc’ is played out in a pool of waist deep water. Using handmade articulated wooden puppets weighing up to 15kg, they’re attached to 50cm poles and manipulated by as many as 11 puppeteers from behind a curtain. The play consisted of various vignettes of Vietnamese life and culture, and included a live band using traditional Vietnamese instruments. 

Scooter crossing against a red light.

After the show both the kids and Heidi were tired and
retired in a comfortable (I’d deem it <3 star) hotel for the night, and I took the opportunity to wander the streets of Hanoi until about 11:30pm. Leaving the hotel, the first 30 seconds of my walk was interrupted by a dude on a motor scooter, who pulled up and asked me if I needed a massage (I don’t think from him). I politely declined, and then considered how laborious my stroll might prove to be, if on every corner someone was asking this lone American if he needed such services. Luckily, it only happened one other time, and I got a chance to experience how life is lived in the streets of Hanoi after dark. Vendors here in the Old Quarter line most streets, food available everywhere, people selling things of all sorts, similar items tending to be clumped together, kind of like aisles in a store. Toys on one block, weird fish products on another, belts, purses hats, luggage, name it. There were also people out on sidewalks burning little piles of what I initially thought was trash, possibly explaining why I saw so little trash. But, it turns out this is some sort of religious offering, and it is often fake money that they burn, made of very thin paper. Note to self: look this one up when I have better access to the internet.

Water Puppet show.


  1. Halong Bay has been on our list, kind of reminiscent of the southern peninsula of Thailand. Can't wait to go!

  2. Yes, I love the time exposures. Wonderful selection of images.

  3. Love the description of trying to cross the road. We had a similar experience in Bangkok...must have stood on the sidewalk for twenty minutes trying to figure out how to get across a six-lane road!


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