Despite my inability to correctly book a hostel and send my actual pick up details (as opposed to the wishful-thinking ones) to the tour company, everything went smoothly for my transfer down to Ha Long Bay.
I declined the repeated kind offer of a motorbike and walked to the original hostel.
After only a 15 minute wait, the guide arrived and took me to join the rest of the group who were waiting on a small coach, unable to move down the narrow streets.
The bus left Hanoi and set off for the coast.
Once beyond the city limits, we were driving through farmland – mostly rice fields where people were hard at work. The land is so green.
We also passed several small towns where the houses seemed quite European in style – mostly tall and narrow like Dutch houses.
In Hanoi, these tube house were built to avoid taxes, based on the frontage of the house. Many of them are very deep, extending far back from the street.
Out in the countryside, the houses were much wider.
Inevitably, on many tours the trip will take you to a factory or workshop to try to convince you to buy goods. My heart usually sinks when I realise that I’m going to spend an hour politely saying ‘no, thank you’.
This tour also included a stop and it was to a centre producing handicrafts made by people who have disabilities as a result of the Vietnam War (or American War as the Vietnamese call it here).
The effects of Agent Orange were not limited to the people who were directly affected by the bombing campaigns. Genetic problems, health issues and disabilities have been passed down through generations.
The centre we visited was opened in 1996 by a US war veteran to provide a means by which individuals with disabilities could support themselves.
When it opened, the decision was made to focus on embroidery as this does not require a great deal of physical movement. The craftspeople sew paintings. Using a photograph of a picture they stitch a copy using silk threads. Each picture can require 50-100 colours. The work is absolutely stunning.
I saw a picture from across the room and it was love at first sight.
65% of the price is returned to the people who work there, to support themselves and their families. Education and healthcare is not free in Vietnam and many of the people working here would not be able to farm – which is the primary occupation for the majority of people in this particular area.
Endeavours like this centre are important.
Tourism has become an important source of income and employment in this area. I do find myself wondering how this can be balanced the with climate crisis. If people don’t visit this area, how will families support themselves? If people do visit this area, it puts tremendous pressure on the environment.
Several companies were piling the tourists in so it became busy, but how else does a place like this find buyers for its products?
Unless people from overseas are aware of its existence to buy goods online… which I wasn’t.
With only a thirty minute stop plus time to visit the Happy Room – apparently a Vietnamese euphemism for the toilet – the centre barely took a great deal of our time
When it opened in 1996, it supported 45 people. Now it has expanded its operation and is supporting over a thousand.
The crafts undertaken here have diversified and there is marble carving, jewellery making and lacquer painting to name but a few.
I was a little surprised to see piles of broken egg shells at the table where the lacquering was taking place but learned it was a key stage of the process.
An educational visit for me.
Back on board the bus, as we neared the coast, we passed through several larger towns. The houses looked less Dutch and more Mediterranean – painted in different pastel shades with large balconies and sun terraces filled with plants and flowers.
There were fewer mopeds and motorbikes on the roads here, though quite a few trucks – some piled high with vegetables others filled with pigs.
We also passed several schools and groups of students cycling past wearing navy trousers or skirts with white shorts fastened at the neck with a long red ribbon or necktie.
As we reached the Bay, which covers over a thousand five hundred square kilometres and has around two thousand islands (the true number is unknown), the road moved through a rapidly developing area – hotels, obviously, but also factories.
I’d already heard and read that a visit to Ha Long Bay shouldn’t focus on the city but is better by boat. The view out of the window showed why.
Our trip guide explained that the area we were visiting avoided the most popular bays which, in high season, can be visited by 10-15,000 a day.
Ha Long City itself was a mix of big, brash new hotels and demolished apartments, alongside the tube houses. The Bay is phenomenally beautiful and a popular destination but this development puts pressure on the environment.
In the heat, the roads were shimmering and there was little shelter in the shade provided by only a few trees.
The bus reached the harbour and we boarded the boat which would be home for the next three days.
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