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The Waterworld People of Halong Bay

“LOOK!” cried our new German buddy, Sebastian, pointing to the horizon, “It’s a boat supermarket!” Sure enough, a few yards away from our small Halong Bay tourboat rowed a woman waist-deep in bottled water, fruit, candy, and soap! Her face was completely wrapped except for the eyes, as so many women in Asian countries do to combat the sun’s darkening effects. She waved furiously at us, rowing closer and nodding towards her wares.

“I AM thirsty, I admitted, and so my friend leaned over the boat, gestured the aquatic 7-Eleven closer… and was promptly ripped off by the Boat Super Market Woman by being charged 20,ooo Dong ($1) for a 5,000 water. Oh, those sassy rowboat vendors!

Tucked amid the 1,969 magical tower-islands of Halong Bay, hundreds of fisherfolk eke out a watery living. Throughout our day-long tour of the bay, we sailed past countless houses floating on the emerald water in the shadow of looming limestone. Many houses boasted two or three giant dogs who barked furiously at us from their ten-square-foot domain. What a claustrophobic life for any animal! Some residents tried to spice up their small plots with jaunty green potted plants. Fancy, fancy.

Have you seen “Waterworld”, the Keven Costner mega-flop? Of course you have– just admit it. Anyway, these water dwellings were shockingly similar to the aquatic homes in the movie. Half-submerged nets held containers, personal goods, and heaps of trash. Alas, much of this refuse (bottles, foil wrappers, plastic bags) had fallen into the open water and hit our boat in every cranny of otherwise lovely Halong Bay.

Towards sunset, our tourboat chugged right up to one water house. What was going on? The captain hopped out onto the wobbling wooden “porch” and strode up to one of the netted gaps in the residence. He crouched down, waited, and then… SCOOP-SPLASH! — he smacked a giant fish out of the little pen and onto the pier! Into a plastic bag it went, and into the boat. His wife will have a nice dinner tonight… mmm.

Though the sealife is abundant in Halong Bay (evidenced by the fact that I’ve eaten more squid in the past week than in my whole life combined), marine harvesting is precarious business. Even far out into the ocean, tiny shrimp farms have even tinier houses atop them: so the bedraggled farmers can sleep there and guard their harvest!

Fisherfolk in Halong Bay go out on the edge to reap the sea’s bounty. Look very closely at this photo to the right of a rock face and the green ocean. Do you see the tiny woman’s form, climbing to gather snails and shellfish for market?

If you plan to visit Halong Bay, I highly recommend you stay on Cat ba Island– the one fully inhabited island in the archipeligo. The island is calm, lovely with its rainbow-colored hotels along the waterfront (photo, right), and full of a strangely touchy-feely male populace; every two minutes groups of three to five Cat ba men saunter by with their arms tightly around each other, many holding hands. We asked a waiter if this is a secret gay haven and he said, “No, they just friend love.” So cute!

The Cat ba residents hug each other, the ocean hugs the silver-purple islands, and the fisherfolk hold the ocean. Love abounds like squid and shrimp!

Halong Bay is Nuts
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