Sunday, February 7, 2016

Floating the waters in Vietnam

A sunset in the beautiful city of Hoi An, an ancient Southeast Asian port.
Vietnam, the enchanting "S" shaped Southeast Asian country, has a coastline and land border that is surprisingly almost equal in length. Three seas connect Vietnam: the Gulf of Tonkin, the South China Sea, and the Gulf of Thailand. Water from the sea, rivers, rice terraces, canals, and lakes of Vietnam seem to mix with the blood of the Vietnamese. Streams of tears, sweat, and blood are stirred into the ancient waterways. As farmers who have stood in water-filled rice paddies for centuries, the ebb and flow of water has dominated their lives--almost like their own breathing. Others have made their living from pulling fish or pearls out of the frothy sea. In many ways, the waterways of their lives are reservoirs of stories and poetry--giving them not only their livelihoods, but replenishing and washing their souls. In the Vietnamese language, Dat Nutoc, means The Country or Motherland--or the Land and the Water. The water, whether it is swirling waves on the ocean or turbulent canals with eddies, is foremost in the Vietnamese consciousness. In many ways, the water is their home, and they have many floating villages to prove it.

Some floating villages in Ha Long Bay

Legend has it that when Vietnamese villagers built their homes, they would dig a large pit, and then let the rainwaters overflow, continuing to carve a large watering hole, and eventually a pond. These village ponds or water holes were the places where people swam, washed, and played. Many villages also have ancient wells, which were important gathering places for village gossip and gatherings. The art of water puppets, a traditional way of unraveling Vietnamese fables on the water/stage, is also a cultural link the Vietnamese have with water. Conversely, just as the water puppets unravel ancient legends on the water/stage, ordinary Vietnamese villagers weave their lives on the water too.

A painting of a Vietnamese village, a common scene by a river.
After a ten day trip in Vietnam, I felt more connected with water--if it was a nondescript tributary or rowing in the expansiveness of the South China Sea. We floated on rivers, canals, and in the ocean, meandering around floating villages and islands. As we rocked on the gentle waves in boats, I was reminded of my Vietnamese friends who were "boat people" or refugees in the 1980's when I worked in Southeast Asian refugee camps. For many of them the water was a burying ground for their loved ones. But also it could be a place of rescue--an opportunity to carve out a new life. For the lucky ones, their waterways became paths of freedom and rebirth. (Next blogpost about Vietnamese refugees)


Families live on boats all year long, but their livelihood is taking tourists on scenic river rides. When you climb on the boat, you get a glimpse into Vietnamese family life--watching the mother swing her baby to sleep in a hammock, the children playing on the floor of the swaying boat, the grandmother rowing the boat.

A young woman waiting for people to come on her house boat to take them on a scenic river ride near Hoi An
Peter, my son, on a boat cruising around Ha Long Bay. Nguyen Trai, a Vietnamese explorer who saw Ha Long Bay 500 years ago, wrote that it was a "rock wonder in the sky." The curvy, jagged 2,000 islets, popping out of the sea, brought a new dimension of the relationship between land and water to me. The early morning fog, the seemingly endless "humps in the sea," and the up close connection to the villagers who lived there are days not to be forgotten.

Ha Long Bay, located in the Gulf of Tonkin in northeastern Vietnam, is a UNESCO World Heritage Sight--one of the new seven wonders of the world. It holds about 1,960-2,000 limestone islets, resembling all different shapes and sizes.

Some were rounded, like camel humps, and some were like long peninsulas. They hold a biodiversity that is unique, some of them even having large cavernous caves within them. Ha Long, for which the bay is named for, is translated as "Descending from the Dragon." The legend of Ha Long Bay is as follows: Several thousand years ago when fierce invaders were coming from the north, heaven sent a dragon and her babies to block the invasions. The dragons came with their fire they could spit from their mouths, but they also brought mouths full of jade and jewels they spit upon the bay, sinking the foreign ships. The jewels that cascaded from the dragon mouths became part of the 2,000 limestone islets that cover the bay today. In one part of the bay called Bai Tu Long, it is translated to "Thanks to the Dragon's children." Thus, the ancient Vietnamese believed they were the descendants of the Dragon.

Fisherman casting their nets in Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay, I can honestly say, is one of the most beautiful places I have been in my life. One morning I awoke early to kayak by myself around the islets. The new day, with a foggy dawn on the horizon, was a reminder that the lucidity of light eventually descends. After the hazy morning light, a whole new world of intrigue opened. The endless array of islets with their various shapes and sizes was mystically enchanting. I could have explored for many weeks in that bay being a "child of a dragon."

A cluster of bungalows for tourists behind some of the limestone islets

Some floating villages in Ha Long Bay where fisherman and pearl divers live--far removed from large cities.

A mother and child rowing back to their floating village, a community of people living in various boats that are connected together. The mother and child were on an early morning fishing trek.

The waterways in Vietnam are well worn trails that bring you everywhere--to the market, to home, to school. And sometimes your job is just to be on a boat all day, with it being your home at night. 
Floating down the canals or tributaries of a village near the Mekong Delta. To slowly meander through the narrow canals of the Mekong Delta was unforgettable. The Vietnamese seem to be as comfortable floating on water as they would be with their feet surely placed on land. 

Some of our family swimming in Ha Long Bay when the sun went down.

Here is a paper cut boat, an ancient Vietnamese craft,  that are sold on Vietnamese streets. It conveys the pride of water and boats in the identity of Vietnam. From the northern Chinese style junk rigs to the southern  boats that are made from bamboo and wood, they represent the different cultural crossroads of Vietnam. In the south, there are even boats that are rowed with the feet. The boat, a symbol of Vietnam, and the people who have made their homes, history, livelihoods, and new lives on them--floating, soaring on water.