04.12.2012 - 09.12.2012
Halong Bay is somewhere I've wanted to see for ages - a long stretch of coast between Vietnam and China with countless huge limestone pinnacles rising from the sea, disappering into ethereal mists. It was as beautiful as I hoped.
We were on a lovely old wood-panelled boat for an overnight trip, with a dozen or so other pleasant friendly people. And two deeply unpleasant frat boys, one Canadian and one American, who launched into the most prolonged and aggressive homophobic abuse either of us has ever experienced. Before that little exchange of views commenced, they and a couple of other lads had got very drunk and repeatedly jumped off the boat into the sea, despite the tour guide's express request of no swimming. At one point when all four were in the water, there were comic scenes of the tour guide pleading with them to get out, while the boat's chef was shrieking furiously at them in Vietnamese and brandishing a meat cleaver. All I can say is it was a pity they weren't left to the chef to deal with.
Anyway. Halong Bay is captivating, and undoubtedly one of the natural wonders of the world. Unbeknown to us the trip also included a trip to Sun Seot, which translates as Amazing Cave. Amazing Cave is not an amazing cave, it is in fact three amazing caves, each more amazing than the last. And possibly more amazing than Halong Bay itself. We were rushed round at high speed unfortunately without enough time to enjoy the Roger Dean-esque shapes and colours, and the pillars of rocks that appearered to be composed of hundreds of compressed Cthulhus. It would have been easy to spend hours here. But the conveyor belt of tour groups did not permit.
Sapa, our second touristic venture, is a town in the far north of Vietnam, close to the Chinese border. It's famous for its sculpted terraced hills, which in summer are vivid with bright green new rice. This wasn't summer however, and Sapa as far as I could tell was composed entrirely of fog and mud. That's pretty much all we saw anyway.
This trip was billed as a two day trek, with an overnight stop at a Hmong village homestay, one of the north Vietnamese hill tribes. An experience of authentic rural life, we thought - great. The first morning we set off, a group of nine westerners led by a tiny young woman from the Dzau tribe. We were soon joined by more and more tiny Dzau and Hmong women, some with babies in baskets on their backs, some with just baskets. They explained that they liked to come along to talk with foriegners and practice their English. Someone asked Why no men, only women and girls? The men don't want to learn English they replied, but we do. What wonderful initiative, we thought - well done these women.
As the terrain grew steeper, muddier and slippier, they leapt nimbly from ledge to ledge offering helping hands up, pointing out footholds and preventing innumerable falls and injuries. We, all clad in hundreds of pounds worth of expensive hiking gear being hauled up steep hillsides by these women, none of whom were anywhere near five feet tall, wearing childrens wellies and flip-flops was an absurd sight. The Hmong woman who appointed herself my hike partner/helper/saviour asked lots of questions - where am I from, am I married, how many brothers and sisters do I have - pulled me out of quagmires, led me across streams and safely up steep banks, made me a little horse out of bamboo stalks, pointed out different plants and stopped me injuring myself and falling into muddy bogs time and time again. Then the lunch stop, and the mysterious baskets were all revealed to contain embroidered and woven goods, which we were morally obliged to purchase, their fearsome sales technique notwithstanding. This was not an unreasonable trade-off so we bought a couple of items from the women who helped us, but a crowd of small girls also joined in, pleading 'Buy from me, buy from me'. We have a no-buying-from-children policy but it felt awful to refuse them. And then on the even more hazardous afternoon walk a second wave of women appeared, asking the same questions - where am I from, am I married, how many brothers and sisters do I have - helping negotiate more quagmires and fresh mud hell, and at the end produced similar goods to sell. But there was no money left, and scenes of anger and acute embarassment ensued.
And as for the authentic village life we expected to experience? Foreigners were put in a cold drafty cramped shed-dorm, sleeping on thin mattresses on the floor, next to a pigsty, waking to dawn chorus of grunty mama pig and her squealy offspring. The host family spent the evening in front of the tv, young girl on a laptop watching youtube videos, all warmed by a fire, and sleeping in rooms with western style beds and doors. I had been concerned that all the profits went to a Hanoi travel agency, with no trickle-down benefits to the locals. I need not have worried. Good luck to the canny and enterprising Hmong, I say - I wish them well.
A slight feeling that we'd been 'had' aside, which I don't begrudge, some uncomfortable truths about tourism came to light and the 'sustainable' travel boom in particular. Endless tourist buses clogging up the roads to get to these (once) remote parts. Villages almost completely orientated to selling handicrafts and ethnic nick-nacks, with whatever crops or products they used to rely on abandoned and their culture repackaged for tourist consumption (see also my earlier post about Aboriginal theme-park-isation in Australia). So many little girls sellings trinkets on the streets - not at school because why waste money sending girls to school when they can make money wheedling cash out of tourists. And in a region with a terrible problem with sex tourism and child prostitution this seems particularly disturbing. Were we contributing to to these blights just by being there?
I said I wanted to come back from these travels with more questions than answers. The trip to Sapa certainly supplied plenty...
Next: Gibbons, turtles and reverb-goats.