Monday, February 11, 2008

Vietnam 7

OK, now starting to recover from parental cohabitation. Here are a couple of highlights from their visit. Links to photos from both places can be found at

Ha Long Bay

Depending on traffic, it takes about 3 hours to get to Ha Long Bay. That is, if you can avoid the tourist bric-a-brac that assaults you on the way there. If you can go by private car, do it, as all the tourist vans refuse to go non-stop, forcing you to wade through stalls of cheap lacquerwear, silk weaving and post cards.

When we arrived at the dock to catch our boat, I was not sure what to expect. We were the first to arrive in what appeared to be a semi-industrial area with not too many obvious trappings of the upscale tour we had signed up for. After a few minutes, some guy wheeled up on a motorbike with a cage filled with scorpions and bottles of scorpion wine. Hmm. That wasn’t in the brochure. Anyway, soon thereafter several fellow passengers arrived, our tender pulled up to shore, and we were headed to the Bhaya Boat, a new 20 cabin junk that was to take us out into the Bay.

Once underway, we left the stress of the car ride and the uncertainty of a possible scorpion induced hangover, and could concentrate on the beauty of Ha Long. Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site, is dotted with almost two thousand islands, most jutting straight out of the water, and (before the age of mass tourism brought so many visitors – like us) clear waters full of fish.

Every day, hundreds of boats leave the docks to bring day trippers, overnighters, and longer-term visitors out to the caves, grottos and beaches. The inner islands teem with the chatter of a dozen foreign languages, as boats line up to dock at popular spots, and locals paddle up to sell trinkets, shells, and sodas. It is also somewhat disconcerting to be admiring the vistas only to watch an oil tanker pass by in the distance as it heads into or out of the nearby commercial port.

At the same time, there is a reason for the Bay’s continued popularity. The islands are beautiful (photos here), many topped with a jungle-fringe, or weathered by rain and wind into fantastical shapes. Others have been hollowed out or undercut and look like they are ready to collapse into the waters. Some of the caves are spectacular, whether empty or occupied by hordes of camera-toting visitors, with great arched roofs dripping stalactites or broad floors bursting forth with stalagmites. The water is cool and a beautiful blue-green. Sunsets and sunrises are spectacular with light from the pinky-orange sun shimmering through the haze over small fishing boats throwing out their nets. Once away from the masses, it is quiet, with a refreshing ocean breeze. Slowly sailing between the islands is a terrific way to spend a weekend. For the more active, like Liz and me, there is the option to sea kayak around the smaller islets. I can honestly report no capsizing and limited intra-boat squabbling. Mom tried to take photos of our rendevous with nature, but her lack of familiarity with the zoom function on my camera rendered most photos useless, unless you like squinting at black specks on yellow dots that kind-of, sort-of resemble something human.

I absolutely recommend spending at least one night, particularly if the weather is good. It is wonderfully quiet at night with a nice view of the stars. You wake up to the sunrise and steam back to port through island after island trailed by seabirds. Then, it is back to traffic.

Phu Quoc

After spending a couple of days in Ho Chi Minh City, my folks, Liz and I flew to Phu Quoc Island to relax on the beach. It actually is quite cold in Hanoi this time of year (as low as the upper 40s -- requiring jackets, not just sweaters), and a break in the warmth of the south sounded good. Vietnam’s largest island, Phu Quoc sits in the Gulf of Thailand close to the Cambodian coast (photos here). Mountainous and still largely-forested, it is now attracting increasing numbers of tourists. Most hotels are still small-scale cabanas on the beach, reminiscent of Ko Samui 15 years ago, but new upmarket places are going up and the Vietnamese government has targeted the island for major tourist development. That has its downsides and I’m glad we got to see the island now, before the changes speed up.

Now, I don’t know about you, but when I go to the beach in Vietnam, I think about one thing – fish sauce. Phu Quoc is famous throughout Vietnam for its fish sauce (and for its pepper) and it exports its product throughout the region. Taking advantage of the opportunity at hand, Liz and I visited a few local fish sauce (nuoc maam, in Vietnamese) factories.

Factories might actually be a bit of an exaggeration. The island has dozens of these establishments, usually set up next to the coast or a river to ease the unloading of the charcoal anchovies that are the primary ingredient of Vietnam’s national condiment. To make fish sauce, local businesses first construct giant wooden vats, tightly supported by thick ropes to protect against leakage. Phu Quoc fish sauce contains two ingredients: fish and salt. And by fish, I mean fish. Not fillets or gutted carcasses. No, the entire fish, packed tightly into layers, each covered by salt. The process continues until the vats are filled and then covered by a loose plastic canvas to prevent any contaminants from disturbing the magic occurring below.

Once packing the fish in, fish sauce manufacturers let the fish ferment (or, if you prefer, rot) for a year, dissolving and liquefying (or, if you prefer, putrefying) until a deep, viscous amber liquid can be drained. Liz and I got an up close look (and smell) at the process, climbing up rickety wooden ladders to peer into the dark interiors of the barrels while the plastic hoses tapped the vats to allow that caramel fluid to flow into plastic vats prior to bottling. We got to sample some of the “first grade” fish sauce. I enjoy fish sauce and thought this tasted particularly good (though a little goes a long way when taken straight). However, it got me thinking. What is “second grade” fish sauce like? I mean this stuff basically is decomposed fish viscera. I probably don’t want to know the answer to my question. Anyway, we ordered a case of the stuff to give as gifts to our Vietnamese friends for Tet, or Vietnamese New Year. Surprisingly, Vietnam Airlines prohibits passengers from bringing fish sauce onto its planes, even in checked luggage, so we shipped it by boat. I’m counting the days until it arrives.

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