Friday, August 12, 2011

Too Beautiful

It isn't good to be too beautiful. You start to attract attention. People want to look at you. They spread the word and then more people want to look at you and then more and more. Soon they start to photograph you and romanticize you, and then you have to be very strong to stay unspoiled or you have to have a lot of the right kind of help.

Ha Long Bay in Viet Nam is too beautiful. Even though it’s been designated a World Heritage Site, that hasn't helped to protect it from itself.

The geology nut in me has always wanted to see these limestone monoliths (1,969 to be precise) rising out of the South China Sea. And from all that I'd read and heard, it was easy to romanticize it. Clear, calm waters (calm is an important feature for someone like me who gets so seasick, I want to throw myself overboard and would be happy to drown), dolphins playing, unexplored caves, misty mornings and red-sailed junks increasing the wonder of it all. The wonder of imagining a 500 million year-old coral reef, the largest in history, made from unimaginable trillions, googols, in fact, of tiny crustaceans fusing to form a limestone mass so large that it stretched from Bali to Thailand. And then the elements and tectonic uplift taking 200 million years to carve this enormous mass into monuments to a primeval world that wouldn't recognize itself today.

The misty mornings still exist, though, in fact misty afternoons and evenings too, (it’s damp!), but the water isn't clear and the dolphins have long since left to be replaced by floating garbage. Oil skims the top of the water left by red sail junks now under power. The sails are just for show.

We left Hanoi in a tourist bus, which conveniently stopped at designated souvenir shops along the way, and arrived to admire the Vietnamese science of organizing world-wide converging tourists: stand in line; tickets checked; numbers called; walk in group to waiting ferry; motor to moored junk bobbing with other moored junks. Which one is ours? Hope it's that one over there. Oh, it looks as though we're headed for the little one with holes in. Let's check for life jackets as soon as we can.

But even an ailing junk is made to feel like home by the Vietnamese courtesy and warmth. Lunch is a truly delicious and simple five course meal of fresh seafood, peppered with the anticipation of casting off. Slowly, slowly we head into the mist and the waiting giants. Three days without Wi-Fi and touching land.

We did touch land, of course -- but not with our feet. We touched it with our hands as we kayaked into caves covered with the fossils of millions of razor-sharp mussels. It's impossible to get a toe-hole on land because the monoliths (called karsts) rise like icebergs from the ocean floor. This is why the fishing villages are floating on foraged Styrofoam.

Recent inhabitants of Ha Long Bay (translated as Bay of the Descending Dragon), these resourceful people have formed communities in the lee of some of the more sheltered areas, all the better to be protected from typhoons, and are making a subsistence living and raising families. It’s easy to fall off these floating islands, so children learn to swim and row boats very early. They go to small school houses on their own islands of Styrofoam. As dawn breaks, the men head out in flimsy boats to fish in deeper waters. Some have created mussel and clam farms in buckets which we pass over in our kayaks. The young women of the villages row flat boats to the tourist junks offering sodas and Ritz Crackers. We buy some, of course, and ask for permission to take pictures. They shyly agree only then lifting their faces to us with beautiful smiles.

At night, our junk shelters in an area surrounded by ancient karsts whose shadows are so deep they create a damp chill that makes our hot fish soup even more delicious. One by one, other junks maneuver into our space -- a junk parking lot. I have to admit that there is a certain comfort to this camaraderie as the karsts loom over us speaking to our transience and their permanence. In the morning, our young women are back in their rowboat but this time trying to gather up the floating garbage with long-handled fishing nets. I'm still mystified by this.

Back in Hanoi, I take a bath. The three-day dampness had chilled my bones. As I lie luxuriating in the water thinking of Ha Long Bay's tainted magnificence, I mull on the fishing villages and their beautiful women. Where do they get hot water so they can luxuriate in a bath? For that matter, where do they get any water at all? What do they use for lights? Do they ever see television? Where do they go on a date? Do they pay attention to the way they look or when survival is so difficult, does that matter? The mulling continues and then I remember that when our two mermaids had raised their faces for us to take their picture, there was a hint of makeup. Yes, there was.

Jane Iredale