Water and a Way of Life


“They spoke less and less between them until at last they were silent altogether as is often the way with travelers approaching the end of a journey.” - Cormac McCarthy

I left Hanoi on Thursday, and one taxi, three buses and a boat later, I arrived on Cat Ba Island in northeastern Vietnam. Cat Ba sits on the edge of Halong Bay - a UNESCO World Heritage site, significant for its beauty and culture.

Halong Bay and neighboring Lan Ha were one of those bucket list places for me. The rocks and karst formations rising out of the sea are the stuff of National Geographic photos. Also as a solo traveler, it was time for some sort of group trip…didn’t want to start talking to myself. So I signed on for a day long boat cruise/kayak/beach trip around the bays. A perfect antidote to recovering from the frenzy of Hanoi (and I am on vacation). The small group was made up of mostly Europeans, and a Russian.

We headed to the dock and boarded a wooden junk boat. As we pulled out of the harbor, we traveled past a floating village of fish farms. These fish farmers spend their entire life on the water…floating houses, dogs and kids running between the fish fish containment areas, generators, and even a floating grocery store. Water taxis ferry children to the island for school and goods back to the fishermen.

We moved past the fish farms into open waters, we cruised around Halong Bay past amazing rock formations…the remnants, according to legend, of a dragon that hit the water. I sat on a chair on the deck and reminded myself how lucky I am to be able to see this…most people will never see this in person. Also, the group of people I was with were smart, funny travelers, who had great stories to tell from places they had been around the world. They were not the backpacker set, but mostly working people like me who had taken a few weeks to escape the real world.

We anchored and kayaked through caves and lagoons, ate a seafood lunch, prepared by the guys on the boat, swam, drank a beer…I could have gotten used to this life. As we were heading back at sunset, our guide, a 10th generation Cat Ba Island native, began to talk to a few of us about the state of the bay.

We motored past oyster farms and more fish farms, he pointed out boats specially designed to catch small fish to feed to the larger farmed fish. There are no regulations to control the over fishing of these small fish and the larger native fish are become scarcer and scarcer. Once, the people of the island would trade produce to the fisherman for these native fish, but the cost has skyrocketed and they can’t afford to eat the fish from the bay any longer. The majority of this fish is consumed by wealthy Vietnamese tourists in the summer months. China controls the South China Sea and Halong Bay is the bread basket of seafood for Vietnam, if this ecosystem is destroyed, so will go the culture and economy of the region. You could hear in his voice the concern and sadness for the future of this place.

We quietly rode in the harbor in the pink light of sunset, grateful for an opportunity to see this beautiful place…for as long as it exists.