Isles of Indochine: Vietnam's Bay of Dragons

Low clouds scudded across the sky as our little boat glided over the emerald water. From time to time fisherfolk waved at us from passing sampans, and occasionally we spotted a stately junk, its sails silhouetted against the horizon like the wings of a giant butterfly. A few birds, unable to restrain their curiosity, brazenly darted down to inspect us. Except for the sputter of our primitive engine, the scene was strangely silent. A faint, late afternoon breeze stirred, portending the end of the day. Then, as it does in the tropics, the sun suddenly set in a riot of red, and we returned in the reflection of its fiery glow.¿I have been zigzagging around Ha Long Bay, a panorama of 1,600 islands mysteriously sculpted by nature, resembling pyramids, pillars, cones, humans, animals - or whatever strikes the imagination. Known as karsts, these limestone formations span southern Asia, from the Philippines to China, where they have inspired painters from time immemorial.¿ Here in Vietnam, clad in dense foliage and honeycombed with a labyrinth of caverns, the islands rise from the sea like gigantic sentinels who, according to legend, have defended this land for millennia.

This was a country I knew well - a captivating land of broad beaches, misty mountains, tangled jungles, sleepy villages concealed in palm groves - and, above all, lean, handsome, cheerful people. I was a war correspondent in Vietnam for years and had returned three times since the war's end in 1975. On one of those trips, in 1981, I came to the Ha Long Bay area to conduct interviews. This time I was here with my wife, Annette, on a more personal mission: to explore closely the islands whose magic had enchanted me from a distance years ago.

During this trip I have come to rely on my skipper, Luu Van Lap, a wisp of a man in his early 40s, with a perpetual grin and a jaunty gait. A rakish nautical cap bore his title: Captain Lap. His small boat was outfitted with a canopy to shield against the sun and the smiling face of a dragon to ward off demons. He traced his ancestry in the region back for generations.

"I know every island, every cave, every current," he boasted one morning, recalling that as a boy he had scoured the area with his father, a fisherman. Stretched out on the deck, he lazily steered the boat with his foot and rambled on about the bay - and himself.

Ha Long means "descending dragon," he told me. When Vietnam was first menaced by invaders, a dragon swept down from heaven with her children. Instead of breathing fire, the creatures spouted streams of jade that turned into islands, thereby creating a formidable barrier against foreigners. In that way, he said, the dragon became a symbol of ancient Vietnam.

The young dragons mutated into various forms, Lap continued, pointing to a hill known as Dau Rong, or Dragon's Head, and a spit of land dubbed Duoi Rong, or Dragon's Tail. He showed us tiny karsts nicknamed for their particular shapes - the Fighting Cocks, the Dog, the Turtle, the Elephant. Carved into the rocks known as the Incense Burner, he said, is a shrine where fishermen pray for a good catch. Another, the Nose, contains a grotto in which they take refuge during storms.

We stopped at Tuan Chau, or Pearl (called Deer Island by the French, though its deer vanished long ago). Its main claim to fame is a collection of decrepit villas, including one that served as a vacation retreat for Ho Chi Minh, the country's late but still venerated Communist leader. As befit his ascetic reputation, an image he carefully cultivated, his room was now austerely furnished with only a bed, a chair, and a table. Judging by a snapshot of him there, however, he also took the time to amuse himself, frolicking with advisers.

The island's solitary hotel, another dilapidated vestige, was preposterously overpriced at $25 a night. The ashtrays were filthy with cigarette butts. We tried to get a cup of tea or coffee, but, the maid regretted, she was fresh out. A Frenchman who had recently scouted the island as a potential locale for a golf course and a casino had understandably discarded the idea.

When I first visited Ha Long Bay years ago, I may well have been the only foreigner there. Now the area was beginning to bustle with passengers off deluxe cruise ships, bargain tour groups, and hardy backpackers. A couple of fast-food joints offered snacks, Cokes, and a spectrum of familiar beers. Scores of tour boats were moored along the waterfront, most of them flying colorful pennants, one embellished with a miniature Eiffel Tower, designed presumably to attract French clients.

The hotels ranged from hideous new cement blocks to a converted old French navy barracks atop a hill.

It reeked of charm but lacked hot water. There was another French relic I knew from the old days, a m¿lange of French and Asian styles caricatured as "Norman pagoda" - stucco walls, spacious verandas, louvered windows, and tile roofs sloping down to curved eaves.

Empty when I stayed there before, the hotel now hosted several Americans, British, Japanese, and French nostalgically yearning to find their country's ambitious mission culturelle still intact. The French are invariably dismayed to discover that hardly any Vietnamese under the age of 50 speak French; the most popular foreign language these days is English.

One day we dropped anchor in a cove alongside four or five sampans clustered around a junk. It was a floating community composed of an extended family - grandparents, parents, children, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts. From tightly woven bamboo boats they fish for shrimp, crab, or anything else their nets can snare.

Lap haggled briskly for our lunch, which his wife proceeded to grill over a charcoal brazier. While we waited, cheeky kids noisily clambered aboard our boat. I was alarmed by the sight of one boy of three or four leaping dizzily from one sampan to another.

"Don't worry," his mother reassured me. "That's how he learned to walk."

I chatted with the mother, Thi Thanh, whose weathered face made her look much older than her 27 years. Depending on luck, she told me, the families earn from $3 to $30 a day each. They pool the money for major expenditures, like buying a sampan for a newly married son. According to custom, Thanh had been compelled to join her husband's family.

"I was born to be a fisherwoman," she said, "but I would rather be married to a farmer and live on land."

It suited me to float around aimlessly, gazing at the weird islands, but Lap insisted on showing us every possible sight. One morning we put in at Cat Ba, the biggest and one of the few populated islands. We peeked into the Flower Grotto, so-called because its stalactites are shaped like blossoms, then trekked over a steep hill into a narrow valley of rice fields encircling a sleepy village.

Near the remains of an old stone French fortress, we were surrounded by inquisitive children, a reminder that half the Vietnamese population is below the age of 30.

Not far away, on an island called Horse's Saddle, were the graves of French sailors slain in a clash with Ho Chi Minh's guerrillas - mute evidence that the French etched their presence on virtually every inch of the country during their long colonial presence.

From there Lap took us to the Dau Go Grotto, the "cave of wooden stakes." We climbed a rickety wooden stairway to a spacious cavern, its rock interior covered with recent graffiti and archaic Chinese ideographs.

An array of deities purportedly inhabit its nooks and crannies, and fishermen burned incense to placate them until the government banned the practice - contending that the acrid odor offended tourists.

The grotto is also tied to one of the epic battles of Vietnamese history. The enemies were the Chinese, who over a couple thousand years have recurrently occupied the country.

In 1287 it was the Mongols who threatened, and the Vietnamese general Tran Hung Dao decided to confront them near Ha Long Bay. He took iron-tipped stakes from this grotto, planted them in a nearby riverbed and, at high tide, sent out his vessels to lure the enemy upstream.

As the tide ebbed, Tran's vessels retreated and the pursuing Mongol ships were impaled. At that point the Vietnamese forces attacked them, slaughtering 300,000 - or so the story goes.

"This ancient land shall live forever," Dao intoned in a victory poem, then retired for the rest of his life to a secluded Buddhist monastery. Seven centuries later the Communist commander, Vo Nguyen Giap, evoked Dao's memory as he launched operations against the French.

As for their war against the United States, the Vietnamese, perhaps out of politeness, are averse to discussing that struggle. But, at my behest, Lap related his experiences as a soldier. He enlisted in the North Vietnamese army in 1965, trained to be a frogman, and soon afterward was sent south, where his comrades were suffering horrendous losses.

"I was certain I'd be killed," he told me. He almost was. Severely wounded in a raid against Saigon, he was captured, jailed, and in 1973 released in a prisoner exchange. The injury left him with a crippled arm, which he wears as a badge of courage.

After returning to Ha Long Bay, he worked at odd jobs and eventually bought a boat to transport fuel oil. But his profits faltered, and he turned to the tourist trade, which was gradually picking up as Vietnam emerged from isolation. Lap flourished and now, on a good day, grosses $50 - a fortune in a country where a senior government official earns that much in a month.

Despite his success, Lap lives in a modest house decorated with calendar art, plastic dolls, and the requisite portraits of his parents and Ho Chi Minh. He dreams of expanding his fleet of boats and is urging his three children to become proficient in foreign languages so that they can enter his tourist business.

hong gai is a coal-mining center that flanks the islands. Predictably, it is a sooty town, where mildewed 19th-century French villas have been turned into Vietnamese offices. Tucked away in an alley is the Long Tien Pagoda, named for the illustrious mother dragon and constructed 500 years ago in honor of Vietnam's savior, Tran Hung Dao.

Vietnamese architecture tends to be garish, and this temple is no exception. Guarding the entrance are statues of mythical warriors looking like characters out of a Vietnamese opera. They wear elaborate coats of armor, and their faces are painted with scowls as they wield their swords, spears, and tridents in fierce postures.

Inside, under a gaudily lacquered ceiling, amid offerings of fruit and candy bars, sits a pantheon of gilded Buddhas, their profiles eerily illuminated by flickering candles. Elderly women, their teeth blackened, were lighting joss sticks and kowtowing to the altar. Our otherwise urbane interpreter joined them. Afterward, when I asked him if he was religious, he replied, "I prayed for the salvation of the nation."

We strolled through a nearby open market, its stalls heaped high with meat, poultry, fish, fruit, vegetables, and spices, garments, pots, plants, and pet canaries. An apothecary sold a baffling assortment of herbal medicines along with traditional remedies like dried sea horses, touted as a cure for respiratory diseases. Nimble porters precariously balanced huge baskets of fresh produce on swaying shoulder poles; peddlers hawked everything from needles and thread to cheap toys.

Sitting on wooden stools at an outdoor bistro, we indulged ourselves with pho, one of Vietnam's culinary specialties, a rich chicken or beef soup filled with cabbage, scallions, dill, coriander, parsley, chili peppers, garlic, star anise, and slippery rice noodles, all generously laced with nuoc mam, the national condiment made from fermented fish.

I wanted to see the local museum, which I heard contained artifacts excavated on or around the islands, but found it could only be visited by appointment. After a couple of telephone calls, however, I was invited over by Nguyen Cong Thai, the curator, who apologized that the museum, a ramshackle granite edifice with Greek columns, is closed to the public to prevent theft.

Thai, a solemn scholar, treated me to tea and a long lecture on the area's heritage, explaining that it was populated by humans perhaps 15,000 years ago. Then, unlocking doors as he went, he led me through a series of musty rooms cluttered with fossilized bones, pottery, and such ornaments as bracelets, earrings, and necklaces dug up from tombs.

The exhibits are clearly contrived to convey the patriotic message that Vietnam, frequently dismissed as a fringe region, actually has one of the oldest civilizations in Asia. As for modern times, one room displayed an enormous statue of the ubiquitous Ho Chi Minh.

I saw similar testimony to Vietnam's antiquity not far from Ha Long City, at the port of Van Don, which thrived for several hundred years from the 12th century on. At its peak the city's docks were three miles long, and a lighthouse stood off its shore. Here traders from China, Japan, and Java exchanged their wares for elegant blue and green Vietnamese porcelains. The law prohibited the sale of gold, ivory, and precious woods to foreigners. But, as in any island region, smuggling was pervasive - and it continues to be today, though now the contraband mainly consists of beer, cigarettes, TV sets, videocassette recorders, and stereo systems illegally brought into Vietnam from China, Singapore, Thailand, and Hong Kong, with the complicity of cops and customs officials.

After dark, Ha Long is moribund. The hotel dining room was a gloomy hall the size of a basketball court, and the only entertainment in the equally lugubrious bar was a television set that played vintage American movies.

Most evenings I ate at an outdoor caf¿ owned by Van Song, an amiable man born in New Caledonia, a French possession in the Pacific, where his father had worked as a nickel miner. Fluent in French, he is a bit of a local celebrity, having worked for the company that made Indochine, which starred Catherine Deneuve and was partly filmed in the neighborhood.

One night I drifted into a spot advertised as a disco. The sole occupants were a dozen or so exquisite young women, some in traditional silk ao dais, others in miniskirts. The ladies clearly had something other than dancing on their minds, and had I been alone, I would surely have been warmly welcomed. My wife was with me, however, and the madam, presumably figuring that this middle-aged couple had somehow lost their way, courteously hustled us out.

Ha Long Bay ought to inspire loftier thoughts, as it did to Vietnam's great 15th-century emperor, Le Thanh Tong. Contemplating its vistas, he composed a poem in which he humbly perceived himself to be, despite his power, merely a speck in nature's limitless universe:

Hundreds of rivers vastly flow

_ around the mountains,_

Islands spread out like a chessboard,

In the immense ocean that becomes

_ one with the sky._